Three bearded men, clothed in the rough but sturdy garb of peasants, stole through the dark, primeval, jungle-like forest, trembling with fear as they paused at every rustle of a leaf, every snap of a twig when the wind whipped through the trees. So dense was the foliage of the tall trees that the sun’s light barely penetrated. They had to peer through the shadows and the dim gloom as they made their way stealthily, but quickly, pushing past the thick growth of long-fringed shrubs and trees, panting heavily in their anxious rush to safety. With wide, terror-filled eyes, they searched for any sign of threat, their muscles taut, ready to run for their lives if need be, their faces pale and stark with grim determination. The risks, the tensions, their awareness of very real and deadly danger wore upon them, making the breath tight in their chests, clogging their throats with panic and leaving their mouths dry with dread.
Another twig snapped, and Lethan, a dark, sturdy peasant with short, lank curls, paused with fear as his eyes darted around the forest. They were out there. He knew it. He could feel them watching, closing in. It was hopeless. The monsters would kill them before they ever reached the boundary of this vast forest. Terrified, Lethan swallowed hard, trying to master his fear, but it would not let go, only twisted more painfully in his gut. Licking his lips, losing the last of the courage that had brought him this far, he whispered hoarsely, urgently, “Pithus. Let’s turn back.”
“No. Somebody’s gotta make it through,” Pithus, a lean man with short, very straight brown hair, replied sharply, though he kept his voice low. His determined wide blue gaze raked the forest before coming back to meet the fear-filled eyes of his friend. His voice taut with desperate determination, he insisted, “Somebody’s gotta bring back help.”
Ilus, the third man, round-faced with haunted green eyes that revealed his fear, agreed with Lethan. Shuddering in a state verging on panic, he stared at their wiry companion. How could Pithus be so resolute? They were risking their lives to no purpose! Couldn’t he see that? “But it’s no use,” he hissed. “Think of how many men our village has sent-and none of them has ever made it. I’m with Lethan. We should go back.”
Impatient, knowing that they had to keep going, Pithus decried, “Back to what? A life of fear? A life under siege?”
“At least we’re living,” Lethan snapped back.
But Pithus wasn’t about to give up. They had to keep going, had to try, for the others, for their families, they had to risk this. They couldn’t give way to fear. They had to hold onto their hope and their determination. “No-we’re gonna make it through,” he snarled, forcing a note of conviction into his voice, pushing past Lethan to continue their desperate journey. Surely, they wouldn’t all be killed. Dear gods, surely at least one of them would make it, would bring back help.
An eerie howl, short but chilling, seeming distant and yet threatening, echoed through the forest and Lethan started with fear, his head snapping up to seek the cause of the sound as he whispered fearfully, “What was that?”
“What was what?” Ilus demanded, not having heard the subtle sound above the rustle of the wind in the trees surrounding them.
Sighing, Lethan muttered uncertainly, “I guess it was nothin’.”
Impatiently, sensing that they were running out of time, Pithus turned to continue leading them through the dense forest. Lethan and Ilus gazed at one another helplessly, indecisive, but then Ilus turned to follow Pithus and Lethan, frightened of being left alone, moved off after them. The silence of the forest was suddenly filled with low howls and whistles, growls, and hoots, as if many dangerous and threatening animals were drawing closer. They’d not gone much farther, when Lethan sensed movement around him and caught a glimpse of a hideous creature gliding soundlessly between the nearby trees.
Terrified, he called out, “What are you? Show yourselves!”
His shout gave the others pause, and they turned, desperate to discern the danger, but the hazy light and thick growth revealed nothing. Nevertheless, the presence of death was thick in the air, and Pithus gasped in sudden horrified awareness, “They’re all around us.” He looked around wildly, seeking the beasts that stalked them, but they remained hidden in the dark, deep shadows.
Suddenly, something flashed through the shadows and barrelled into Lethan, sending him flying and he was lost to sight, cut off by the dense greenery that surrounded them. His voice rose in hoarse, inarticulate screams of terror and hideous pain, as the bushes swayed and rustled with the violence of the assault against him-and then his anguished cries were sharply cut off, silenced. His body was violently pitched past them to crash into the earth a few feet away.
Ilus cried out, “Lethan!” as they rushed to his side. Pithus knelt to turn his crumpled, too still, friend onto his back as Ilus wailed plaintively, “I think he’s dead…”
Horrified, Ilus backed away from the reality of Lethan’s sudden and brutal murder, but then his legs were caught by something and he was dragged down, into the earth. “No! Ah-h! Pithus! Pithus!” he yelled in a paroxysm of utter terror. Pithus lunged for him and grabbed his hand, desperately trying to pull Ilus out of the hole into which he was sinking, as he cried out in fearful appeal, “Come on, Ilus-kick! Come on! Kick! Kick!”
Fighting for his very life, panicked by the constraints that held him fast, Ilus screamed, “Help!”
Gripping Ilus’ arm with both hands now and leaning back with all his strength, Pithus was still unable to pull his comrade free from whatever had grabbed hold of him. As the terrified Ilus sank deeper, Pithus exclaimed, “Fight it!”
But it was hopeless.
Ilus was caught fast and there would be no escape for him. Though he tried to fight, he was inexorably pulled deeper into the ground, and he grimaced with pain, blood staining his lips as he writhed against the sinuous constraints that bound him. From somewhere in the depths of his being, he drew upon the last vestige of courage that remained to him, accepting that he would die, but wanting Pithus to survive, to succeed. Lifting his face toward Pithus, he screamed, “Pithus! Aw-w-w! Aw-w-w-w, my legs! Pithus! Run! Run! Go!”
There was a flash of pity in Pithus’ eyes, a deep grief at the stark knowledge of a horrible and certain death that blazed in Ilus’ wild gaze. And then Ilus was gone, swallowed up by the earth. For a moment, numb with shock, Pithus stared at the empty place where Ilus had been, and then he swiftly turned away, running for his life as if all the Hounds of Hades were on his heels.
Blindly through the forest.
Desperate to get away from what hunted him, from what had killed his comrades.
Until he at last broke free of the hideous forest into the sunlight and the open fields beyond.
And still he ran.
It was mid-morning, the day bright and clear, already warm under the blazing sun. The market square of the small village of Thebes thronged with vendors and shoppers, the scents of spices, baked goods, raw meats and earthy vegetables rich and inviting. The shouts of men hawking their goods, of women raised and sharp as they haggled and bartered, and the giggles and yells of children who scampered in the dust, filled the air, adding to the cheerful chaos. Oblivious to the adults around them, boys played a boisterous game of toss with a large leather ball bound with twine, and more than one annoyed vendor and shopper cried out as they were nearly bowled over or tripped by the antics of the youngsters in their midst. A small girl with long blond hair, neatly pulled back, watched with eager anticipation on her face, longing to join in the fun.
“Can I play?” little Lilia finally called out as she scrambled after the ball and grabbed it up, turning to face the gang of boys.
“You can’t,” one called out, shaking his head, his own long hair flying, at the silliness of this little one who would soon get trampled in the dirt, too small to keep up with the fast moving game.
But, undeterred, Lilia shouted back, “Why not?”
“‘Cause it’s a boy’s game. Now give us back our ball and go play with a doll or something,” another tow-headed lad scorned disparagingly.
Lilia’s mother looked up from her shopping at the shouting and smiled indulgently. They were young ruffians, but they were also right, if not for the reason given. Her child was too small yet to participate in such an aggressive game. Shaking her head, she called as she waved her daughter to her side, “He’s right, Lilia. Now come and help me with the shopping. I need to you carry this basket for me.” Mollified, feeling important now that her assistance was so clearly needed, Lilia sniffed righteously as she tossed the ball back toward the boys and hurried to her mother’s side to accept responsibility for the small basket filled with grapes and tomatoes.
Ignoring her, the boys quickly resumed their play and were chasing again after the ball when one looked up and caught sight of the tall, strongly muscled young man striding into town. The man had long flowing honey-brown hair that glinted in the sun, clear blue eyes, a lean visage and determined jaw, and he wore serviceable brown leather breeches, a sleeveless vest and heavy gauntlets. He walked with an air of purpose and confidence, moving with an unstudied grace of balance and power, large, heavy boots planted solidly on the earth with each long stride. Though he carried no weapon, he was clearly a warrior.
The lad gave a small gasp of recognition, then turned and bolted through the market square, unconsciously carrying his friends’ ball with him as he dodged shoppers and tore around the corners of the booths and carts filled with vegetables, jumping over small piles of reed-woven baskets that littered the market area. Breathlessly, he leaped up onto the boardwalk and skidded to a halt in front of a solid though slightly built young man with untamed curly blond hair, who was loitering on a bench next to the wooden shop of the local potter, munching on an apple. Though his posture was relaxed, his expression was intent as his piercingly blue eyes swept the market area, as if searching for something or someone. He wore a sky blue shirt and black leather pants, leather gauntlets protecting his forearms.
“You wanted to know when he got here, right?” the lad panted as he turned and pointed back from whence he’d come. “Well, he’s coming up the lane right now!”
The blond man stiffened at the words, and then he was on his feet, blue eyes flashing with anticipation. He nodded once, his expression intent with almost a grim determination as he glanced back once at the boy and then wordlessly passed him to stride into the bustling marketplace, grabbing up a thin wooden staff as he hurried forward.
The tall man with the bronzed muscles strode resolutely through the market, past stalls loaded with goods and baskets heaped on the ground, oblivious to the flower seller as he brushed past her, so intent upon his mission that he scarcely heard the shouts of the hawkers, “One day only! One day only! One day only!” and “Tomatoes! Sweet…”
People instinctively moved out of his way, though they turned to watch his passing, not surprised to see that he had returned, most well aware of why he’d come. He was in a hurry and scarcely acknowledged them; indeed, he barely noticed them at all.
“Yah-h-h-h-h-h!” the blond shouted as he ambushed the taller man, attacking him with no warning in the midst of the market, swinging the staff as he launched himself forward. But the taller man caught the staff, pulling the smaller man off-balance and knocking him to the ground. The big, muscular man deliberately snapped the wooden staff in half, as if it were no more than a twig, as he stared down at the man sprawled in the dust. So tall was he that he blocked the sun from the view of fallen man, creating a haze of light around him as he stared at the blond lying, apparently helpless, at his feet.
Both young warriors smiled then as their gazes locked, small tight grimaces in anticipation of the fight to come. And then the tall warrior leaned forward, intending to grab up the smaller man, but the blond kicked out suddenly, driving the big man back. Rolling back over his shoulder onto his feet, the blond lunged for the much larger man, fearlessly, as if unaware that the contest was uneven. But the big man caught him and pitched him up and over his shoulder, to crash heavily onto his back into the dust. The blond swiftly twisted and rolled, trying to ready for the next attack, but he wasn’t quite fast enough.
Large hands grabbed him and he yelled inarticulately as powerful arms lifted him high onto the unnaturally strong man’s shoulders and then up and over the tall, young warrior’s head and the bigger man tensed as if making ready to throw him…
“Whoa! Hey, wait! Wait! Listen! It’s bad luck for the best man to kill the groom before the wedding!” the blond appealed, cajoling, trying hard not to laugh.
The big man grinned as he looked up at the hapless and helpless man that he held effortlessly over his head. “All right. I’ll wait till after the wedding,” he replied as he lowered the smaller man onto his massive shoulders and then down to the ground.
For a moment, they simply gazed at one another, and then both burst into laughter, their faces alight with happiness as their eyes sparkled with mirth…and then they were hugging one another fiercely, the tall man lifting the smaller man up off his feet as they embraced with gleeful friendship. Once he’d regained his feet, the blond reached out to grab the larger man’s triceps as he smiled broadly and exclaimed sincerely, “Ah, it’s good to see you, Hercules. You look great!”
Hercules smiled broadly as he reached to clasp the blond’s arm in the clasp of warriors, his other hand moving to grip his best friend’s shoulder. “You too, Iolaus,” he replied warmly, “and congratulations!”
“Come on, Herc. Come have a drink with me,” Iolaus encouraged, clearly very glad to see his friend and wanting to visit awhile. “Help me celebrate.”
Regretfully, Hercules shook his head. “Sorry,” he explained, “I have to get out to my mother’s house. She’ll be worrying about me. Why don’t you walk with me? We can get caught up.”
Chuckling with wry understanding, Iolaus nodded and Hercules slung an arm around his friend’s shoulders as they turned out of the marketplace, heading for the countryside.
The young lad who had fetched Iolaus clutched half of the broken staff to his chest as he watched them leave, a look of awe on his face as he breathed, “Hercules…”
In no hurry, the two friends ambled out of town along the trail that wandered near a small, gurgling creek and was bordered by lush green fields filled with golden flowers. They passed other travelers along the rutted path as they rambled by the distant forested hills on their way to Alcmene’s cottage. Somewhat chagrined, Hercules acknowledged, “It’s been a while, my friend.”
But Iolaus only laughed softly, holding no grudge for having been left behind, not now though it had hurt at the time. “I’m surprised you survived this last one without me at your back,” he teased lightly.
Hercules shook his head as his gaze lifted to the hills. “It’s not the same without you,” he confessed quietly.
Iolaus swallowed as he turned his head away, frowning a little at those words. He sighed softly as they walked along quietly, knowing that everything was about to change and that he’d not be able to travel with Hercules in the future as he usually had in the past. But despite the pang of regret at that realization, more that those quiet words signalled that Hercules would miss his companionship, Iolaus couldn’t be unhappy about the reason that he’d not be going with Herc on his future journeys. For there would be journeys for Hercules, no doubt about that. There was always someone in need, sending for help against some monster or warlord, appealing to Hercules to save them from certain disaster. Given the constant demands upon his best friend’s time and good nature, Iolaus was truly grateful that Hercules had made time to come home, now, to be there for him, to stand up beside him as he committed his life and love to Ania.
“I’m glad you could make it home, Herc. I hope the rest of the world can get by without you for a week or so,” Iolaus reflected sincerely, the gratitude in his voice unconsciously revealing the doubts he’d harboured that Hercules would come in response to the message that he had sent.
Surprised that Iolaus could even conceive that he wouldn’t have come back for this momentous event, Hercules turned to his best friend. “Are you kidding? Nothing is going to keep me from your wedding. You know, when I got the news…I couldn’t believe it,” he protested, and then, though his expressed disbelief was seriously meant, he added with a teasing grin to soften the words, “Now, seeing you? I still can’t believe it.”
“Hmmm,” Iolaus chuckled wryly, understanding Hercules’ disbelief, nodding a little as he ambled along.
When two pretty maidens walked past, heading into town, Hercules smiled at them and then tilted his head at Iolaus, leaning a little closer as he observed with no little humour, “You’ll be giving up a lot, Iolaus. Have you thought about that?”
“You make it sound like I’m falling off the edge of the earth,” Iolaus protested, though he’d caught Hercules’ knowing gesture toward the two lovely young women. Not so long ago, he’d have been flirting with them and Herc knew it.
“No, no, not at all,” Hercules laughed, mocking a little as he added, “I mean, who knows? I’ll probably get a wife or two myself, someday.”
Iolaus snickered softly, refusing to rise to the baiting tone as he murmured with slight sarcasm, “Uh huh.”
Relenting and giving up on the light teasing, honestly curious, Hercules asked, “So…who is this girl? Is she pretty?”
Iolaus glanced up at his friend, and his expression softened as he replied with enthusiastic warmth, “Ania… yeah, she’s very pretty. I could sit and look at her all day.”
Hercules gazed at him incredulously as he echoed, “Look at her?” Iolaus was known to do far more than simply ‘look’ at a lovely woman.
But Iolaus was serious. “Yeah. She’s-you know? Beautiful,” he insisted, waving his hands a little, at loss for the words to adequately convey what he felt when he saw Ania, what she meant to him.
Shaking his head, Hercules observed wryly, “Well, you’ll eat better, that’s for sure, once you have a wife to cook for you.” He was teasing again. Iolaus was forever hungry and his constant complaints about missing meals or eating on the run had long been a joke between the two of them.
A curious mixture of diffidence and humour flashed across Iolaus’ face as he admitted, “Well actually, Ania’s not that much of a cook.”
Catching the chagrin in Iolaus’ tone, amused, Hercules turned to him as he asked, “How bad?”
Shaking his head, shrugging with fond resignation, Iolaus smiled a little as he confessed, “Oh…really bad.”
Grinning, appreciating the wry candour and beginning to grasp how very much Iolaus must love this woman if he was prepared to put up with truly terrible cooking, Hercules offered modest consolation as he offered, “Well-at least you’ll have someone to look after your livestock. You won’t have to pay a foreman who steals you blind.”
But Iolaus grinned a little in embarrassment, as he looked away, “Weeeell…”
“What? She’s not good with animals, either?” Hercules demanded, finding it hard not to burst out laughing. Iolaus was a hunter who had a healthy respect for animals and an almost mystical affinity with them.
“No, they’re scared to death of her,” Iolaus snickered, vastly amused as he reflected upon his beloved Ania’s strange effect upon any animal in her immediate vicinity. He couldn’t understand it. She was so sweet and gentle, but the silly critters went berserk with terror whenever she approached them. It was actually very funny to see.
“So, she can’t cook. She’s not good with animals,” Hercules observed dryly. “Can she at least sew you some better clothes?” he teased as he lightly fingered the frayed colour of Iolaus’ shirt.
“Nope-can’t sew a stitch,” Iolaus laughed good-naturedly. Cutting Hercules a quick look, his eyes glinting with humour, he added, “Don’t even ask what I paid for her.”
Rising to the bait, pretending to be serious, Hercules demanded to know the bride price, “What’d you pay for her?”
Proudly, Iolaus reported, “Seven cows, three goats, eleven chickens…”
“Eleven chickens!” Hercules repeated, honestly astonished. It was common practice for the groom to pay a price to the family for the loss of their daughter, but this was steep indeed. Iolaus must have virtually slaved in the forge to come up with the dinars to buy the animals required. And all for a paragon who apparently couldn’t cook or sew, scared animals and Iolaus only wanted to look at her!!!
“Yeah, I know,” Iolaus laughed, and shook his head, unsurprised that Hercules was finding it all very hard to believe. “But she’s got this little mole, right here,” he tried to explain with a bemused smile, pointing at his right cheek. “It drives me crazy. What can I tell you?”
From the quizzical look on Hercules’ face, that additional bit of explanation hadn’t helped at all.
“You can tell me what happened to the Iolaus I used to know,” Hercules replied, only half-kidding.
His smile faded as Iolaus turned thoughtful and reflective at the question, answering it as honestly as he could, “Well, love happened to me, Hercules.”
“Ahhh,” the young demigod murmured as if he understood, though he didn’t, not really.
Seeing the flicker of confusion in Hercules’ eyes, Iolaus admitted, “I don’t expect you to understand it. I can hardly understand it myself.”
Hercules studied his friend, not satisfied that with response. This was too important. Never having loved anyone that much, so much that he’d give up everything and change his whole life, Hercules demanded with no little concern, “But are you really willing to give up your whole life…for a woman? For something you don’t really understand and can’t seem to explain?”
Gazing up at his friend, appreciating the question for the sincere concern that it revealed, Iolaus reflected that for all that Hercules would unhesitatingly face down a raging god or battle a deadly monster without flinching, he was only, just barely, twenty years old. Herc had suffered the pangs of infatuation, but never the immensity of this feeling that swept over and through Iolaus, dwarfing everything else and overwhelming him with its magnitude and intensity. Gods, he die for Ania…giving up a few adventures was nothing, less than nothing, though Iolaus was honest enough to admit to himself that he’d miss travelling with Hercules. But, despite his glib tongue and facility with words, Iolaus couldn’t even begin to explain what he felt. There just weren’t words to describe it to someone who had never experienced it. However, it was only a matter of time. One day, Hercules would understand.
Recognizing the hopelessness of Hercules really understanding why he’d chosen this life path before Herc had experienced a boundless love of his own, Iolaus chuckled knowingly as he finally replied, “Someday, Hercules…someday, you’re gonna meet a woman unlike any other. Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.”
Unconvinced, stung a little by Iolaus’ tone, Hercules protested defensively with false bravado, “Me? Ha. Never.”
Hearing the defensiveness born of confusion in the younger man’s voice, Iolaus paused, drawing them both to a stop. Somehow, he just didn’t feel he could leave it like this, without trying to help Hercules better understand what had happened. They’d been friends all their lives, and until Herc had set out on this last journey on his own to fulfill a stupid labour for the gods, something about cleaning out a stable, like that made any sense, Iolaus had always traveled with him. But now that was going to stop. It was only natural that Hercules would be confused, and maybe even a little hurt, by something he didn’t yet have the experience to understand.
Looking up at his taller friend, his face serious, a distant look in his eyes, Iolaus said quietly, “Herc, I don’t know if I can explain what it’s like in any way that will make sense to you. But…it’s like being caught by a giant tidal wave, that just sweeps you away to a land you never even knew existed. A beautiful land, not perfect-but a place you really want, even need to be. I love Ania so much, it’s almost a kind of ache, a desperate desire to do anything for her, to make sure she’s safe, to protect and cherish her. And the most amazing and wonderful thing is, she feels the same way about me. I feel humble that she’d even think that I’m worthy of her love. I don’t know,” Iolaus sighed, pushing his fingers through his curls, knowing he wasn’t making anything very clear.
Focusing on Hercules, he said with a shrug, “It’s not something you decide to do, or expect when you first meet someone…it’s not something you control. It’s bigger than that. And it’s wonderful. It will happen to you someday…it has to. You deserve to feel this, to know what it means. More than anyone I know, you deserve this kind of love in your life. To feel this kind of happiness. And, I guess,” Iolaus hesitated, looking away, struggling to find the words to say what he knew he had to say, “I need you to understand. Because, well, you’re my best friend, Herc, and I’m sorry, really sorry, that this changes things. That it means I won’t be traveling with you like I used to. And I don’t want you to think that’s because I don’t care about you anymore. I do. It’s just that, well, I need to be with Ania now.” Turning back to Hercules, his voice utterly sincere, Iolaus concluded, “Gods, don’t say this won’t ever happen to you…I hope it does. Because I know when you meet that special woman, whoever she is, you’ll be happier than you’ve ever been in your life.”
Taken aback by Iolaus’ words, the young demigod bit his lip as he realized he’d been right to assume that this marriage would mean Iolaus would no longer be traveling with him, and he pushed back the hurt of that. He’d meant it when he’d said that it was never the same, never as good, when Iolaus wasn’t traveling by his side. To distract himself from the ache of loss in his chest, Hercules grappled with trying to understand what the kind of love that Iolaus was describing must feel like, but before he could reply, the demigod was distracted by the sudden sound of a child in great distress. Lifting his head, listening intently, he heard another whimpering, muffled cry, and he asked urgently, “Iolaus-do you hear that?”
Turning, they spotted a small child with long blond hair, sitting tumbled in the dust, weeping her little eyes out. Together, they moved off the path and down the low hill to determine what had happened to her and how they might help. They moved steadily but cautiously forward, alert to danger and did not fail to miss the scattered piles of bones on the ground next to a shrine, mostly animal from the look of them, as they passed by on their way to the weeping child’s side.
“Hey, there,” Hercules soothed, not wanting to frighten her further, as he knelt in front of her. “What’s the matter? What are all these tears about?”
“The monster killed my father,” the little girl sobbed. Glancing toward the small nearby shrine that was capped with the large bronze representation of a peacock, the symbol of Hera, she continued, “We were praying to the goddess and the monster came and ate him. And after he ate him, he spit out all his bones.”
Knowing that the bones were more likely the remains of routine sacrifices to the goddess, Hercules’ gaze shifted around calmly, as he asked, “So, a monster did all this, huh? Why don’t you tell me about him?”
“He’s big and ugly. And he eats you. And he’s never full,” the tiny tot reported, her large blue eyes wide with sincerity. “He’s always hungry. No one can get by him. I bet not even Hercules could get by him.”
With a quick look back at Iolaus who was standing behind him, amusement flashed for a moment in the demigod’s eyes before he turned solemnly back to the child. Hercules smiled softly as he replied, “Well, Hercules has the heart of a rabbit compared to me. Now-where’s this terrible monster?”
Lowering her voice, leaning confidentially toward Hercules, the child whispered, “I don’t want it to hear me.”
Nodding soberly, Hercules leaned forward as he lowered his own voice in reply, “Oh, that’s a good idea. Monsters have excellent hearing.”
As soon as he had come close, the child’s arm suddenly transformed into a thick tentacle that swiftly slid up to wrap itself tightly around his neck, almost throttling him, and her expression shifted from fright to evil satisfaction as she chuckled coldly.
“Hercules!” Iolaus exclaimed as he moved forward, ready to help if need be.
Startled and alarmed, the demigod struggled against the choking hold and even as he struggled, the ‘child’ melted away, the tentacle the last to slither away into the empty shell of her clothing.
“Are you all right?” Iolaus demanded, even as the heroes moved apart and into position, as they’d been taught at the Academy, to come at whatever it was from either side, to present more difficult targets.
Hercules nodded, but didn’t speak, his attention riveted on the small heap of clothing. “What is it?” Iolaus demanded then, his voice taut, as he, too, warily watched the crumpled pile of cloth. “What’s it doing?”
Cutting him a quick glance, Hercules replied tensely, “I don’t know. But I got a feeling it’s gonna be ugly.”
Suddenly, a massive beast broke through and away from the child’s clothing, a slug-like body, long tail and a neck like a snake, its cowled head rising high into the air. The thing’s mouth gaped open, lined with short, sharp, serrated teeth as it snarled and hissed threateningly. Behind it, Iolaus moved to pull his sword, but Hercules waved him off, hissing, “Don’t, Iolaus. Don’t provoke it.”
However, when the monster dipped its head close Hercules, it was too much for Iolaus. The danger was far too close to his friend. “Hercules, what are you doing?” he cried when Hercules failed to flinch back or otherwise move to defend himself. Iolaus pulled his sword, but the metallic rush of it clearing its scabbard attracted the monster’s attention. It whirled its head around toward him and its body rippled, the long, heavy tail bunching for attack.
Recognizing the new danger, Hercules shouted, “Look out!”
But the warning came too late as the massive appendage slammed into Iolaus, driving him back, the sword flying high out of his hand as he yelled, “Yeow!”
Hercules pulled the sword from the air and cried, “Come on!” to bring the monster’s attention back to him and away from Iolaus, who had been thrown hard toward the stone steps of the shrine. The demigod stood defiantly as the monster turned back to him, and he waited until the massive head again ducked down toward him, and then he swung the weapon with all his strength, cleaning cutting off its head, which fell to the dust while the body of the creature writhed and twisted in its death throes. Finally, it collapsed heavily to the ground, raising a cloud of dust.
Iolaus scrambled back to his feet and loped across the clearing to join his friend, both of them staring down at the dead, decapitated monster.
“Come on. Let’s get outta here,” Hercules said to his best friend, his nose wrinkling in disgust. “This thing stinks.”
Glad to agree to move on, Iolaus muttered, “Yeah. What in Tartarus was that?”
Teasing as he turned away, Iolaus moving with him as they headed back toward the path, Hercules grinned as he replied, “That’s Ania, the day after you marry her.”
“Hey!” Iolaus protested, but he grinned as well, knowing his buddy was only ragging him.
The sudden new sounds of movement behind them, the quick sticky sibilance of rushing liquid, caught their attention, and as one they turned, their mouths dropping open in consternation as they saw the supine body spring back to life. The severed neck twisted back into the air, splitting as two new heads appeared, both roaring with aggressive fury. When one of the heads dropped to attack Hercules, he swung the sword with a wild yell, again decapitating the neck-but two more heads appeared from the ugly gaping wound so now three massive, fearsome heads were threatening them.
Cutting off heads wasn’t working-they just ended up with two more! Desperate for another option, Hercules’ gaze raked the clearing and landed on flames burning in a metal torch on the altar of Hera’s shrine.
“Iolaus!” he shouted, “Grab that torch!”
Wondering if now was really the time to piss off Hera by wilfully violating her shrine, as if she wasn’t already pissed off enough, he thought wryly, Iolaus ran to the shrine, narrowly evading one of the heads that bit down at him, while Hercules held the creature at bay. Knowing it would do no good to cut off their heads, the demigod used his massive strength to punch and slug heads that came too close, forcing back the attack. And then he had to leap away as the tail, tipped with a no doubt poisonous stinger he’d not previously noticed, plunged down at him and into the earth where he’d just been standing.
Iolaus scrambled up the stone steps to grab the torch and then he whirled around to carry it back to Hercules. But it was as if the monster sensed the danger and turned to focus on him, one massive head dropping to attach him. “Whoa!” Iolaus shouted, dodging away, but another head dipped without warning to bite into his shoulder, the rows of sharp teeth biting through skin into muscle.
“Yeeaahhhh!” he yelled with inarticulate and startled pain when the short but exceedingly sharp rows of teeth solidly hooked into his body, so that though he struggled to get away despite the risk of further and more severe damage to his shoulder, he was held firm. He twisted, to try to reach the torch with his other hand, but the agony and shock of the fierce bite had numbed his right arm and he couldn’t hold onto the torch as it slipped from nerveless fingers. “Dammit!” he gasped, reaching now to pound at the monster’s head with his fist, but he couldn’t get enough leverage to do any damage, caught as he was with his back toward the creature.
Aghast at the danger to his friend, his face dark with anger, Hercules turned and ruthlessly cut off the head that was biting into his friend. The monster roared back as that head fell to the dust pulling Iolaus down with it, and Hercules quickly shifted his grip, throwing the long, deadly weapon hard, like a spear, and it impaled the monster against a huge tree.
“Iolaus! The torch!” he cried as he ran toward the snarling, struggling beast. “Quick! Give it to me!”
Ignoring his pain, Iolaus pulled away from the now slightly gaping maw, scrambling to grab the torch with his left hand and toss it unerringly to his friend.
Hercules swiftly leapt up to jam the flames of the torch into the bloody neck wound and then backed off, just as the whole beast burst into flames…and then disintegrated before their stunned eyes.
“What was that?” Iolaus demanded, never having seen a hydra before. “If you cut off its head, the thing grows another one! And another one!” He grimaced with disgust and the lingering trace of alarm at what they’d confronted. Though he’d faced monsters before, and would always fight them when he had to, no amount of experience made them any less terrifying or appalling.
Hercules looked up, his gaze caught by the long peacock tail feather that was now impaled to the tree by the sword he’d thrown.
“Hera,” he grated, “I should have known she was behind this.”
“Ya think?” Iolaus asked, though rhetorically with no little tinge of sarcasm. Hera never missed a chance to attack Hercules, and it was her shrine that sported the bronze peacock.
“I know,” Hercules growled in unnecessary response. Angrily, he strode toward the shrine and using the metal, still flaming torch, he viciously swiped at the representation of the peacock, sending the head, neck and body flying into the forest.
Iolaus just shook his head with helpless understanding. Such a violation would only enrage the goddess further, but whether Hercules calmly walked away or tore the shrine apart, her hatred of him, and her ceaseless attempts to destroy him, would continue unabated.
Disgusted, Hercules tossed away the torch, snarling to himself as much as to his friend as he stalked off, “Damn you, Hera…don’t you ever give up?”
Wishing he could offer more than wordless commiseration for the harassment his best friend suffered from the vicious Queen of the Gods, Iolaus cast a thoughtful glance up at the peacock feather impaled on the tree. Swallowing, he went to retrieve his sword, and could almost feel the glare of Hera’s ugly eyes from the skies above as he followed his friend away from the destroyed shrine and the site of the deadly ambush. As he strode along in Hercules’ wake, he rubbed a little at his damaged shoulder. It stung a bit, but not bad, considering, and the wounds were shallow, the attacking teeth sharp but short. The bleeding had already stopped.
Though Hercules had stormed ahead, furious at the attack, he soon slowed and turned back, his tense muscles obviously easing as he saw that Iolaus was only a step behind him. Reaching out to lift his friend’s shirt away from the wound, he said apologetically, “I forgot for a minute that that thing bit you.”
Iolaus smiled softly as he endured Hercules’ inspection, but he replied with easy confidence, “Don’t worry. It hurt at the time, but it’s not serious. I’ll be fine.”
Satisfied that Iolaus was right since the wounds appeared shallow, Hercules shifted his gaze to his friend’s eyes. “That thing was after me…I’m sorry that you got caught in the middle.”
Laughing, Iolaus shook his head. “Herc, anything that attacks either of us, attacks us both. We decided that a long time ago. Don’t worry about it. And, hey, good thinking to so quickly figure out that fire was the way to destroy it. I’ll have to remember that, in case we have the bad luck of running into another one like it some day.”
“Let’s hope that never happens,” Hercules protested, shaking his head as he turned to resume their amble toward his mother’s cottage. Wanting to forget about Hera’s relentless persecution, wanting to think about happier things, Hercules turned to his friend as he recalled the conversation they’d been having. “So, you really think I might fall in love someday, too?” he asked, a tentative grin on his lips, half hoping it would happen, half terrified of the kind of overwhelming lack of control over it all that Iolaus had described.
Iolaus beamed up at his younger friend as he nodded, “Oh, yeah, buddy…no doubt about it. The only question is when.”
“Well, here we are, Hercules,” Iolaus observed as they ambled up to the door of Alcmene’s humble cottage. It would soon be time to take his leave and let his friend visit with his mother. “Some places never change, huh?” he mused fondly as he gazed at the immaculate cottage, and the rich and fragrant variety of blooms in the garden and in the purple flowering vine growing up the wall and over the lintel of the door. Alcmene’s home always had an air of peace and tranquility, of welcome. Hercules wasn’t the only one who thought of the place as ‘home’.
“You know,” Hercules murmured with a soft smile as he tenderly fingered one of the purple blooms, “the one thing I never forget about my mother’s house is her flowers. I always thought they smelled like her.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus chuckled warmly, thinking the same thing as he followed Hercules inside.
Alcmene had been busy chopping a variety of vegetables for a soup she had simmering in the hearth when they walked in. Her simple, floral patterned cotton shift flattered her fair complexion, and her rich, thick, blond hair, lightened now with glints of silver, was loose and curling down past her shoulders giving her an air of perpetual youth and vitality. Turning, her gentle, open face lit with love at the sight of her tall, strong, son and his lifelong best friend. “Hercules!” she called with a broad smile of delight as she rushed into his open arms and hugged him tightly. “Welcome home!”
But, as she pulled away, she noticed the bloody scrape on his arm and frowned as she observed, “What happened? You’ve been hurt.”
Not having even noticed the small injury, Hercules glanced at his arm in surprise and then smiled reassuringly, “No, it’s nothing.”
“Were you in a fight?” she persisted, her voice anxious.
“Mom!” the demigod protested. “I’ve just walked in the door and already you’re worrying?”
Smiling with some chagrin, Alcmene nodded as she admitted fondly, “I always worry about you, Hercules. It’s a constant sweet ache called motherhood.” But she could see she was embarrassing her son, so after giving him a quick peck on the cheek, she turned away to greet the son of her heart, only to frown again at the small splotches of blood and the tiny tears in the shirt at his shoulder. Moving forward, she began to pull at the collar of his shirt to get a better look. “You’ve been bleeding and it looks like something bit you!” she exclaimed, now very definitely worried.
Taking her hands in his own, Iolaus grinned at her. “I’m fine, ‘Mene, honestly! We ran into a bit of trouble on the trail near Hera’s shrine, but nothing we couldn’t handle,” he assured her.
Alcmene’s lips thinned with impotent anger. There was nothing she could do to stop Hera’s ambushes and efforts to harm her son. But the reality of the goddess’ enmity was one of the reasons she couldn’t help worrying whenever Hercules was away. Still, these two young men wouldn’t thank her for undue expressions of concern and she would only embarrass them. Shaking her head ruefully as she looked from one to the other, she murmured as much to herself as to them, “I keep forgetting you’re not children any more, but strong men, well able to take care of yourselves, and others, too, when it comes to that.”
Getting a grip on her anxieties, she looked again at Iolaus as she teased, “Only a week left, Iolaus, before the wedding. Are you ready?”
“Oh, yeah,” he sighed, sincerity in his voice and eyes. “I can’t wait to marry Ania!”
Smiling gently at him, she nodded as she reflected, “I’m very happy for you, Iolaus. And, you know, I think marriage will be good for you.”
“Thank you,” he grinned at her, appreciating her fond regard and good wishes for his happiness. “I think so too.”
“Ania’s certainly a beautiful girl,” Alcmene observed, a teasing glint in her eyes.
“Yeah, she is,” Iolaus agreed wholeheartedly. “And I oughtta be getting back to her. Oh, I almost forgot!” he added with a humorous glint of his own in those brilliant, dancing eyes. “Ania told me to invite you both over tonight. She, uh, wants to make dinner.”
Understanding the nonverbal signals, Alcmene was hard pressed not to snicker with amusement. Ania’s terrible cooking was no secret. “Oh,” she murmured, wishing there was some excuse to refuse without forever hurting the girl’s or Iolaus’ feelings.
“Mmmm,” Hercules grunted noncommittally, recalling Iolaus’ comments about his intended’s cooking abilities, or lack thereof.
But, Alcmene rallied, much to Iolaus’ relief. He knew the evening would be something of a trial, but he desperately didn’t want Ania to be hurt. She was trying so hard. What did it matter if the food was a bit flat or undercooked…or singed?
“A dinner would be lovely,” Alcmene assured him, winning a grateful smile.
“Good,” Iolaus chimed as he turned to head toward the door. “Then I’ll see you both tonight.”
Once the door had closed behind him, Alcmene turned toward her son and waved to a chair by the kitchen table. “All right, sit down and let me get a closer look at that arm,” she directed, in full ‘mother-mode’.
Hercules grinned as he shook his head, but he sat as directed. Nevertheless, he tried to distract her because the wound really wasn’t serious, and he knew it was only the precursor to the demand for more information about the monster he and Iolaus had encountered.
“I brought something for you,” he said with a winning smile as he pulled his leather carry sack off his shoulder and rummaged within it.
Amused, knowing a delaying tactic when she saw one, his mother asked, “Oh? What is it?”
“A present. Spices from Alturia,” he replied as he pulled out the good-sized packet and handed it to her. “I thought you might like them for your cooking.” Iolaus wasn’t the only one who thought Alcmene was the greatest cook in the world and Hercules knew how much his mother enjoyed experimenting in her kitchen with different dishes and spices.
“Ohhh, how very thoughtful,” she replied, honestly grateful as she took the cotton-wrapped packet and laid it on the table. However, undeterred from her primary mission, she turned back to him and gave him a straight look as she demanded, “So, are you going to tell me how you got that scrape, or not?”
Rolling his eyes with a sigh of surrender, Hercules replied, “We met a kid on the road who was crying her little heart out…and then she turned into this-this ‘thing’. But, really, Mom, we handled it. I’m okay.”
“Another one of Hera’s creations, no doubt,” Alcmene muttered unhappily and with no little trace of anger.
“Hmm,” Hercules assented. Well, it had happened beside Hera’s shrine after all. And there had been that peacock feather. But he wished his mother didn’t worry so much about him. He resented the assaults more on her behalf than on his own. There wasn’t anything they could do to stop these unprovoked attacks… there never had been anything they could do, not from the moment Hera had sent those snakes to murder him when he was yet only an infant in his cradle. He’d handled the snakes. He’d handled that thing, he guessed it was a hydra from how he’d heard them described, today. And he’d handle whatever Hera sent tomorrow.
“I hate her,” Alcmene stated, her voice low but harsh with emotion. Hercules’ mother was a tolerant woman and hated few beings, but Hera was one of those few.
“I wish my father would find a way to do something about her,” Hercules sighed, sorry to see his mother upset, especially when there really wasn’t much he could do about it. But, mentioning his father led him to another thought. “Has he been around much since I’ve been away?”
“Who? Zeus?” Alcmene asked, startled out of her thoughts about Hera.
“Yeah, Zeus,” Hercules affirmed. His father had never come around when he’d been a child, but his mother had confessed that Zeus had been dropping by from time to time since Hercules had gone to the Academy and then had started his traveling around Greece to assist anyone who had need of his help. He probably wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t arrived earlier than expected on leave from the Academy one Solstice to find Zeus visiting. The demigod had mixed feelings about Zeus hanging around his mother. On the one hand, the King of the Gods could be a powerful protector…on the other, well, Hercules didn’t really want to think about it in any detail.
“From time to time,” Alcmene replied absently to his question, her lips curved in the trace of a small smile at the memories, though the smile faded as her attention returned to the nasty scrape on his arm.
“Mother, I don’t know how you can stand to see him,” Hercules muttered a little sullenly. “I mean, he ignored the both of us for years…”
“Hercules,” Alcmene replied firmly, softening her tone with a smile, “Zeus gave me a wonderful son, and for that, I will always be grateful to him. It doesn’t matter that he was never around. In fact, it was probably better that way. I’m not sure I would have wanted to share you with him.”
Her tone had lightened, until he could tell she was teasing him. But, still, it couldn’t have ever been easy for her. “It’s just that I worry about you…” he said then, but when she made as if to protest, he added with a teasing grin of his own, as he mimicked her earlier tones and words, “you know, the ever-present ‘sweet ache’ of being a son who loves his mother?”
She laughed as she ruffled his hair and then turned away, “As long as I’ve got you sitting still for a minute, why don’t I see what I can do for that wound.” Hercules smiled bemusedly after her as she bustled out to her bedchamber to retrieve her small pots of ointment and herbs to treat what was truly no more than a simple scrape.
A low rumble of amused and indulgent laughter filled the small kitchen as Zeus appeared and said, “She’s always saying those things. But deep inside, I know she’s still crazy about me.”
The smile faded from Hercules’ face, replaced by an expression of careful neutrality as he turned to look up at the jovial god who’d appeared beside him. Zeus manifested as a middle-aged man, his dark hair slightly receding, his face slightly softened by age but still revealing a hawk-like strength and awareness. He was richly clothed in layers of finely woven and embroidered linen, the cowl of the cloak pulled up over his head. His dark eyes were glowing with amusement, but still penetrating, missing nothing.
Though he smiled now at Hercules, the look in his eyes was shadowed with wariness. The two of them did not enjoy a fond father and son relationship. With a sigh, Zeus accepted that that was largely his own fault.
“I should have known you’d show up now,” Hercules snapped, not bothering to hide his irritation with his errant father, more honest with him about the dangers the hydra had represented than he’d been with his mother. “Where were you when we were battling that beast of Hera’s a little while ago. We barely came through it.” Irritated with himself for even asking, for knowing better, the demigod looked away, seething silently.
“Ahh, but you did succeed,” Zeus replied, and then added, his voice low with a tone that sounded suspiciously like respect, “and you always do.”
Not looking at his father, referring to an earlier conversation they’d had the last time they’d met, Hercules murmured, “I thought you were going to talk to her. Get her off my back. After all, she is your wife.” But he cringed inside at even raising the issue, sounding to his own ears like a whining child. He didn’t look for favours from any of the gods and sure didn’t expect any. He asked more for his mother’s sake, so that Alcmene wouldn’t have to worry so much about the apparently eternal enmity that Hera held against him.
Zeus sighed as he wandered aimlessly around the kitchen, touching a small pewter cup and then a clay canister, uncomfortable with this son who was ever and always displeased with him. “I’ve made a rule,” he said, trying to sound matter-of-fact but his manner was awkward and almost shy, “that no god can kill another god, and you qualify in this instance as a god, so she can’t come at you directly. She has to work through mortals or monsters, or whatever, which gives you more than an even chance. And,” he continued, his voice hardening with the strength of his own emotion, “more to the point, I suspect, I’ve long made it clear that no one can ever do anything to harm your mother. Period. No games-and no second chances if they ever try.”
Setting down a small wooden cask of herbs he’d been fingering, he turned to face his son, “I’ve tried to get her to stop harassing you, but, well, Hera’s a woman as much as she is a goddess. And there’s no changing a woman who doesn’t want to be changed. No more than any man can be changed against his will. If I fought her directly over every little thing, we’d be locked in a war for thousands of years and I don’t want that. You can’t begin to imagine the damage, the waste that would result from such a conflict on Olympus. It’s easier, yes, easier,” he emphasized when Hercules rolled his eyes and looked away, “to allow her petty plots and small satisfactions. I’ve found it best to stay out of her way as much as possible so as not to irritate her further, and to find my own amusements elsewhere.”
Hercules snorted at that. Zeus and his ‘amusements’ were legendary. But he was surprised, and grateful, for the ‘rules’ Zeus had instituted, especially to protect his mother. Swallowing, never finding conversations with his father easy, hoping to turn the subject to something less intense, the demigod asked with almost bitter amusement, “So, is that why you’re here? To give me advice about women?”
Shaking his head, smiling tentatively, Zeus replied, “No. I’m here to see how my favourite son is doing.”
“Well, I’m doing great, thank you for asking,” Hercules replied neutrally, striving to keep the conversation reasonably pleasant for his mother’s sake if not his own. Though his tone softened as he added, “Especially now that I’m back home.”
“I’ve got to tell you,” Zeus blurted out, wishing that there didn’t have to be such tension between them, “I’m very proud of you. You know, your name’s become a legend. Everywhere I go people are talking about you.” The King of the Gods hesitated a moment, but then added, his voice low, almost embarrassed, “I have to admit, I haven’t been a very good father. But you’re a wonderful son.”
Hercules gave his father a wry, wordless look of scepticism, and Zeus winced a little, looking away, finding the whole conversation uncomfortable and certainly unsatisfying. Shifting the discussion to what he hoped was safer ground, he looked toward the passageway as he asked, “Uh, where’s your mother?”
But Hercules was quick to jump to conclusions, up and on his feet between Zeus and the narrow hall that led back to the bedchambers as he retorted, “Oh, no-no, no. You…you leave her alone.”
Startled, Zeus took a step back as he exclaimed, “Oh, come on. What are you talking about?”
With a glare, the demigod snarled, “You know exactly what I’m talking about!”
His hands raised in unconscious self-defence at the charge that he’d only come to somehow take advantage of the mortal woman he most loved in the world, Zeus interrupted hastily, “Look, I just want to see…”
But, angry and thinking only the worst of his father, Hercules abruptly and harshly cut in, “She’s not one of your amusements anymore, all right? She’s my mother…”
Hastily, Zeus tried to reassure his son, “I just want to say hello.”
Hercules might have intended to say more, but he was interrupted when Alcmene came back into the kitchen, carrying a jar of ointment and a small packet of herbs. She looked up, startled and surprised to see Zeus standing in her kitchen. A spontaneous smile of welcome faltered at her lips when she glanced from the god to her son.
Admiringly, the King of the Gods addressed her with a voice full of affection and respect, “How are you?” Nor could he stop himself from murmuring with admiration, “You…you look wonderful.”
Her smile steadier now, and her eyes glowing with warmth, Alcmene murmured, “I could say the same about you.”
Chuckling, Zeus began to protest the compliment, “Oh, come on, I’m…”
But Alcmene cut in to change the subject as she sensed Hercules’ growing tension with the personal tone of the remarks between his parents, to ask uncertainly but sincerely, “Ah, can you stay to visit with us for a while?”
For a moment it was clear the King of the Gods would have liked to accept, but he cut a look toward Hercules and couldn’t miss the hard, unwelcoming glare. Stammering a little, not wanting to offend Alcmene, Zeus replied, “Um…no, I don’t think I can. I have to see Artemis in a little while-she has her skirt in a twist over something to do with her Amazons, and I just came by to see how my…my boy was doing. And I can see he’s doing fine.” Pausing as he gazed with rapture at the woman, whether goddess or mortal, he loved best, Zeus couldn’t help but add softly, “And you’re as beautiful as ever.”
When the King of the Gods left shortly thereafter, Hercules turned to his mother, curiosity warring with discretion in his eyes. “Um, Mom, just what is going on between you and Zeus?”
Smiling serenely, she shook her head. “We’re friends, Hercules…just friends who share an interest in our wonderful son.”
It was dark by the time Pithus had made his way after days of travel to the village of Thebes. He’d been asking for word of Hercules on the roads, and had learned the demigod had been seen making his way toward home. Now, confused as to where to start looking for the demigod, he was wandering, exhausted, through the small village. Not really paying attention as he gazed around, he inadvertently walked into a cast iron frying pan hanging from the roof of one of the merchant’s booths on the edge of the dark market square.
“Ooh!” he exclaimed, startled more than hurt, as he reached to steady the swinging pan that he’d banged into. He looked around and heard voices coming from the other side of the square. Young men were teasing a pretty girl walking past them with a large basket of kindling in her arms.
Laughing and teasing, one man called out, “Hey, there, pretty one, why don’t you stick around, huh?” A little unnerved by their raucous attention, she hurried on wordlessly as another guffawed and pulled his friend away, observing with great amusement, “Come on! She’s too young for you, anyway.”
In her nervous rush, looking back over her shoulder to make certain they weren’t following her, the young woman careened into Pithus, her breath exhaling in a surprised, alarmed, “Oomph!”
Pithus, equally startled, began to stammer an apology, “Oh, I’m sorry. I-- I-- I just…”
But she only gave him a foul look of disgust as she turned to hurry off on her way home.
When Iolaus had arrived at Ania’s home earlier that afternoon and wandered into the kitchen, he was glad to learn that she’d managed to talk her parents into going to her aunt’s place for dinner, but wryly figured the thought of Ania’s cooking had helped persuade them to find their meal elsewhere. Still, it was a relief to know he wouldn’t have to cope with their still stiff manner with him when Hercules and Alcmene arrived.
Ania’s smile blazed forth at the sight of him, but then her expression clouded as she frowned in alarm when she spotted the small tears and stains of the dried blood on his shirt. “What happened!” she exclaimed, moving immediately to his side, looking up into his face for reassurance.
“Oh, nothing much,” Iolaus replied nonchalantly, not wanting to worry her with a tale of a monster on the edge of town. The thing was dead so there was no reason for further alarm.
Shaking her head, she briskly began to tug his shirt from his pants. “Take off your shirt,” she directed, her tone ‘no-nonsense’. “I’ll have to clean out the wound and bandage it so that you don’t get any infection.”
“Ania,” he began to protest, but she levelled a stern look at him, so he smiled and gave in. Truthfully, he had no objection to removing his shirt in her presence and this was as good an excuse as any to enjoy her touch on his body. ‘Thanks, Hera,’ he thought to himself cockily as he pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it on the back of a chair, unworried about whether he offended the miserable goddess or not with his disrespectful attitude toward her.
Ania filled a basin with water warm from the kettle and grabbed a clean rag from the cupboard, along with her mother’s pot of healing ointment. Setting her supplies on the table, she dipped the cloth into the water and then wrung it out as she turned to face Iolaus, moving to gently clean the blood away from the row of small puncture wounds on his well-muscled shoulder. “What happened?” she asked again.
“Oh, well, Hercules and I ran into one of Hera’s more unfriendly creatures on the way home,” he reported, realizing he’d have to tell her something of what had happened. “It kind of nipped at me at one point, but we handled it and it disappeared into a cloud of dust. So there’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“This looks like it would have hurt,” she observed, feeling a sudden, twisting ache in her belly at the thought of Iolaus in any pain.
“Really, I’m fine,” he assured her as he leaned forward to kiss her cheek, warmed by the very evident worry for him in her eyes, “Here, with you, I’m better than fine. Everything is just great.”
She smiled at him, glad to be reassured, and finished cleaning up the small wounds. There was no point in bandaging them as they’d stopped bleeding and would heal better when open to the air, so she just tenderly patted his lightly bronzed skin dry and then emptied the basin by tossing the water outside the back door.
Iolaus reluctantly pulled his shirt back on as he wandered over to sniff at and stir the stew simmering in the hearth. It smelled strongly of too many spices and already looked well cooked, though it would be a couple of hours yet before Hercules and Alcmene arrived. While her back was turned, he unobtrusively shoved at the hot coals with the poker, moving them to the side and away from directly under the pot. The stew would stay warm but shouldn’t cook a great deal more.
He helped her prepare the greens, tomatoes, onions, cheese and olives for the salad, looking away to hide his wince as she prepared the dressing with too much vinegar, wondering why Ania’s mother hadn’t done a better job of helping his bride learn how to cook. But the last thing Iolaus would ever do would be to criticize his lovely, gentle, Ania. He’d cut off his right arm before he ever did or said anything that might cloud her eyes with hurt. Once they were married, he’d make a game out of ‘experimenting’ with their cooking, trying different things, so that together they could discover how to cook differently and more to their mutual satisfaction.
Once the rest of the meal was prepared, they cleaned up the kitchen and set the table, and then they just sat and visited. Ania chatted happily about the details of the wedding planned for the next week, and her excited ideas about how to fix up his rather Spartan cottage once she was his wife, while he simply sat and looked at her, a happy, contented smile on his face. She was so beautiful with the light of the late afternoon sun glowing on her face and rich dark hair, pulled smoothly back into a knot at the nape of her neck. And she moved with unconscious grace, her gamin face alive with energy and enthusiasm, her eyes sparkling. And that mole…he took a deep breath as he resisted the desire to reach out and caress it. Gods, he loved her. It filled his chest, making his heart ache a little with the sweet joy of it. Iolaus had no doubts about the rightness of his decision to devote his life to keeping her safe, to making her happy. She was so delicate and gentle, so beautiful and generous-and to his everlasting wonder, she quite evidently loved him to distraction. It made him proud, to think she found him worthy of her, of her love. He’d never betray her, never do anything to disappoint or hurt her. Gods, he’d die for her.
Later, as the time drew near for their guests to arrive, they stood to undertake the final preparations for the meal. Ania insisted on lifting the heavy pot of steaming stew by herself, to carry it to the wooden kitchen worktable where she’d ladle the stew into bowls.
Suddenly nervous, she looked up at him for reassurance, a tentative smile on her lips as she said, “I hope they’re going to like it, because this is one of my best recipes.”
Smiling at her as he slipped his arms around her waist and planted a quick kiss on her cheek, Iolaus insisted, “I’m sure it’ll be great.”
Setting the large pot on the table, Ania reached for a wooden spoon and ladled up a small amount to hold out toward Iolaus as she insisted, “Try it.”
Swallowing, he bravely sipped a little of the broth and hid his grimace as he assured her as positively as he could, “And even if it’s not, that’s okay.”
Pouting prettily, unhappy with that answer, Ania insisted, “But I want them to like me.” She barely knew Alcmene, and Hercules she’d never actually met, though she’d certainly seen him in the village. These people were important to her Iolaus and she desperately wanted to be accepted by them.
Not at all worried that Hercules and Alcmene would fail to love his precious Ania, Iolaus warmly hugged her and insisted with full confidence, “They’re going to like you. They’re going to love you.” Giving her another quick kiss on the cheek, he added, “I know I do.”
Reassured, Ania grinned happily, and coyly replied to his declaration of love, “It’s nice to know I’m marrying a smart man.”
Sharing the teasing mood, Iolaus joked back, “You forgot ‘good-looking’.”
“No, I didn’t,” she quipped back, then giggled at the stricken look of mock hurt on her beloved’s face as she turned into his arms and kissed him enthusiastically on the lips.
“What’s this?” Alcmene teased, walking in on the fond embrace. “Dallying in the kitchen? Go on, get out of here, Iolaus. Go keep Hercules company. Go on!”
“All right, all right,” Iolaus acquiesced with a warm chuckle as he looked past her and saw Hercules standing in the entryway. Giving Ania a last squeeze, he released her and went to meet his friend, who turned to take a seat at the prepared table, knowing dinner was about to be served. Iolaus followed him, eager to get his first impression of Ania.
Excited, Iolaus demanded, “So, Hercules-what do you think?”
The demigod looked up at his friend sardonically as he replied, “I think there’s a weird smell coming from the kitchen.”
Laughing, Iolaus shot back, “Nooooo! About Ania! Isn’t she great?”
Relenting, Hercules smiled as he replied, “She’s very pretty. I bet she’ll give you some good-looking sons.”
Just then, Ania emerged from the kitchen, one of the two bowls in her hands almost overflowing with stew. “Hercules,” she said as she placed the very full dish in front of him and laid the other in front of Iolaus as he took his seat at the table across from Hercules, “I made extra for you. I hope you’re hungry.”
Alcmene followed her out of the kitchen with the bowl of salad and her own meagrely filled dish of stew in her hands as she moved to settle beside Hercules. But Ania had remained standing beside the demigod, evidently waiting for his reaction to her ‘best’ recipe. Hercules obligingly leaned forward and ladled up a small bite. He held his position as he tasted it, his eyes flashing quickly up to Iolaus, wincing a little at the shadow of empathy in them, and cut to his mother, who looked at him a little nervously, before he lifted his head, swallowing hastily as he smiled warmly at Ania and rendered his judgment, “Mmm, this is, um… this is great.”
Ania beamed at him, and then as she was about to turn to the kitchen to get her own bowl of stew, her eyes drifted to the window and she started, gasping with fright.
“Ania, what is it?” Iolaus demanded, turning to look over his shoulder.
“I saw somebody looking in the window,” she explained, pointing toward it.
Immediately, Hercules and Iolaus were on their feet and rushing toward the door, as Alcmene also stood and moved to put a reassuring arm around the younger woman’s shoulders.
Hercules reached the door first and shoved it violently open, only to feel it connect solidly with someone on the other side.
“Uh! Oh! Oowww,” Pithus groaned, rubbing his nose as he emerged from the far side of the door that had almost sent him flying just as he’d moved to knock on it.
Not taking any chances after the recent run-in with the hydra earlier, wondering if this was another of Hera’s little friends, Hercules grabbed him by the folds at the neck of his cloak and lifted him unceremoniously into the air, as he demanded, “Who are you?”
Scared, Pithus blurted, “I’m sorry. My name is Pithus. I-I’m here to look for Hercules.”
The demigod frowned, struck by the man’s obvious terror of him and the sincerity in the stranger’s voice as he desperately explained his mission. Settling the stranger back on the ground, releasing his grip on the man’s cloak, he replied, “I’m Hercules.”
“Thank the gods,” Pithus gasped in relief. “I searched the whole town looking for you.”
Hercules glanced at Iolaus, who was now standing beside him, as he encouraged in a slightly wary tone, “Well, now that you found me…?”
Pithus needed no encouragement to tell his tale. “It’s my home-Gargarensia,” he began almost breathlessly, blurting out the information. “We’re under attack. You have to help us.” His voice was filled with the tones of fear and desperate hope.
“What kind of attack?” the demigod demanded with a frown of concern.
Pithus’ eyes slipped to the side briefly as he replied, “Beasts.” But then he looked back at the demigod as he continued, his words coming fast as he tried to explain, “Ferocious beasts that live in the forest surrounding our village. They come in the night-attacking us as we sleep. They steal our livestock, destroy our crops.”
“Can’t your men fight them?” Hercules demanded, putting his hands on his hips as he listened, hearing the fear and despair in the stranger’s voice.
“We tried,” Pithus assured them, his gaze moving between Hercules and Iolaus, anxious for them to believe him, to understand the desperate situation of need. “We sent out our best warriors and hunters into the woods. They never returned.”
“They were all killed?” Iolaus clarified, not liking the sounds of this at all. He threw a speculative look up at Hercules, knowing his friend would never refuse such a plea for help…wondering how dangerous it would be for one man, albeit a demigod, to go alone into a forest filled with beasts that had already killed the best fighters the village had had.
Nodding in response to Iolaus’ statement, Pithus continued, “We’re just simple men left, now-farmers and fishermen. The beasts have turned us into prisoners in our own village.”
Still trying to get all the facts, Hercules demanded a little sceptically, “Well, how is it you were able to get out and come here?”
“Only by the luck of the gods,” Pithus sighed, sorrow thick in his voice as he looked away. His grief was plain as he continued, “Two others left with me. They’re dead now.” Sighing, Pithus looked back up at Hercules, willing to plead if need be, as he begged, “Please, Hercules, they’re about to attack again, soon. I wouldn’t ask this of you, but, well, I don’t know if my people can survive this time.”
Iolaus frowned as he looked at the ground, knowing that his best friend would never decline such a heartfelt plea for rescue. Hercules would go, and much as he knew he owed Ania his life, Iolaus couldn’t bear the thought of Hercules facing such a deadly and dangerous threat on his own.
Glancing at Iolaus, thinking of the upcoming wedding and how little time that remained before it was to take place, Hercules asked, “How far is it to Gargarensia?”
“Two days’ travel,” Pithus eagerly informed him, relieved to believe the hero would come, would save his people.
Making his decision, Hercules nodded as he said kindly, “Get yourself some food and some rest. We’ll leave tomorrow at first light.”
Awash with relieved gratitude, Pithus blurted as he edged past and took his leave, “Thank you, Hercules. May the gods smile on you.”
Following the frightened man for a few steps, his arms crossed, Hercules observed wryly, “Better they just stay out of my life.”
“Sounds pretty bad,” Iolaus observed as followed Hercules, moving to stand close beside his friend. Having made his own decision, unable to let Hercules face such evidently overwhelming odds on his own, Iolaus added matter-of-factly, “I wonder what we’re up against.”
Surprised by the comment, the demigod turned to face his friend as he replied mildly, “We’re not up against anything. Your adventure days are over. You’re getting married, remember?”
But Iolaus was not going to be put off. This was too important. Using his best tone of optimistic assurance, he cajoled, “That’s a week away. This’ll be two days out, kill a few horrible beasts, two days back. There’s lot of time before the wedding!”
Frowning, looking uncertain, Hercules temporized, “Still, I don’t think…”
But Iolaus cut in, urging his friend to agree, making it impossible for Hercules to decline his offer of help by pulling out all the stops, as he pressed, “Come on, Herc. It’s our last chance together. Best friends, fighting back-to-back.” Giving his friend a winning smile, he cajoled shamelessly, “It’ll make a great wedding present.”
Listening, the demigod had to admit to himself how very much he wanted Iolaus with him, and would miss his best friend when Iolaus was finally married and unable to wander with him, as he once had. Willing to be persuaded, Hercules chuckled, relenting, letting go of his concerns about the propriety of it all as he acceded, “All right. Best friends, back-to-back.”
Iolaus beamed as he slapped his best friend on the shoulder. “Great!” he chimed, relieved to know Hercules wouldn’t be facing this danger on his own.
But the demigod’s face clouded with concern as he asked with no little trepidation, “But…what are you going to tell Ania?”
Ania had not been well pleased by the news that Iolaus was about to head off on a possibly dangerous mission. She tried to hide her fear for her beloved’s well-being, and also the niggling worry that maybe Iolaus really didn’t want to marry her, but would prefer to continue going off on adventures. But she found she couldn’t just say an easy ‘good bye’. When his arms came around her and she looked up at him, her eyes clouded as she asked again why he had to leave.
Prevaricating, not wanting her to know that he’d insisted on going lest he hurt her, Iolaus replied, “Well, Hercules really wants me to go. You know, he gave me this whole speech about ‘best of friends’, ‘last time’-all of that.”
“So, you don’t want to go. It’s Hercules?” she pressed, only partially reassured, and still worried about him.
“Yeah,” Iolaus lied with no compunction, “he practically begged me.” Leaning forward, he kissed her.
Sighing, Ania hugged him close as she murmured, “I’m gonna miss you.”
Sorry to be leaving her, though he believed he honestly had to give Hercules back up in what sounded like a dangerous situation, Iolaus soothed, “It’s only for a few days and I’ll be back before you hardly even notice that I’m gone. Besides, after next week, you’re going to be stuck with me forever.”
Hearing the worry for her in his voice, not wanting him to leave with the memory of her fear in his heart, Ania pulled back a little as she teased pertly, “Well, that is, of course, unless I marry somebody else while you’re gone.”
Appreciating her effort at humour, loving her for it, Iolaus teased back, “You’d do that, would you?”
But Ania’s bravado shattered as she looked at him, so worried about him she was almost in tears. Looking away, trying to continue the teasing banter, failing, she whispered miserably, “I might.”
Suddenly serious, Iolaus replied with intense sincerity, meaning every word, “Well, you’d be settling for second best. You’re never gonna find anyone that loves you as much as I do.”
He pulled her back close and leaned down to kiss her, knowing that he’d miss her, sorry to be leaving her alone with that fear in her eyes.
Further up the lane, Alcmene was taking her leave of Hercules while Pithus lingered in the background, anxious for them all to be on their way.
“I really wish you weren’t going,” Alcmene sighed. “I was hoping we’d have more time this visit.”
Hercules nodded in understanding, but he cut a quick glance at Pithus before returning his full attention to his mother, as he replied, “I know. I don’t expect you to understand, but-these people need me. If I don’t go, it could mean their lives.”
His mother took his arm as they walked slowly toward Iolaus and Ania, who were talking quietly some distance away, “I do understand,” she said honestly. Squeezing his arm, she asked, “Just promise me you’ll be careful.”
Hercules slipped an arm around her, drawing her into a gentle hug as he smiled and assured her, “Always.”
Nodding, Alcmene pulled back to turn her gaze again toward the young lovers, “Oh, they look so wonderful together,” she said softly with a smile.
“Yeah,” Hercules had to agree, then added a little uncomfortably, “but-she’s changed him so much.”
Chuckling with kind understanding, Alcmene assured her son, “Someday, Hercules, you’ll find a woman who’ll do the same to you.”
Laughing, the young demigod replied dryly, “You sound just like Iolaus.”
As they had now drawn closer to Iolaus and Ania, Hercules called out with a note of fond teasing in his voice, “Are we going, or are we just hanging around, kissing the women?”
Ania pulled away from Iolaus and rounded on the demigod as she said very seriously, “Hercules, I’m counting on you to make sure he gets back to marry me.”
Iolaus looked a bit chagrined as he bent to pick up his bow and pack, slipping them over his shoulder as Hercules replied, “Oh, I’ll have him back in plenty of time. Don’t you worry.”
At his reassurance, Ania turned back to her soon to be husband, accepting his quick kiss of farewell as he said, “Bye, Ania.”
And then they were striding away, resolute and full of confidence, Pithus with them. Ania took a few steps in their wake, worry etched in her face. Alcmene stood behind her, also concerned, but almost wearily resigned to it, knowing that her son’s travels and adventures had barely begun and that this was only one of the many leave-takings to be experienced and endured as stoically as possible for all the years to come.
They strode across fields, and then into the forested hills, past rushing rivers and waterfalls, their route becoming more challenging as they climbed higher, sometimes having to pull themselves up and forward by grabbing onto small trees or rocks for leverage. It was a beautiful land, lush and full of promise, and the skies were bright and clear, the day mild with just enough of a breeze to be refreshing. They climbed still higher, the air beginning to cool around them as they reached greater altitudes. Late in the afternoon, as the forest coverage broke on the edge of the trail, Pithus pointed ahead to the long line of majestic, snow-capped mountains that loomed above them, not far now in the distance.
“Gargarensia is just beyond those mountains,” he assured and encouraged them.
And still they climbed, higher, up along grey granite, the trees growing smaller and sparser until they were left behind. A stream that began from somewhere above them, gurgled and plunged down over the rocks, but it was now so cold that icicles formed on the edges of the shallow rocky terraces the stream tumbled over on its way to the valley far below. A bitter wind whistled as they forged on, blowing hard pellets of snow and tiny crystals of ice against them. But they’d pulled warm woollen cloaks out of their packs, cowls drawn close around their faces for protection from the biting blast of air that whipped around and past them and so they trudged cheerfully onward despite the challenges of the slippery trail and the weather.
On they went, along a long incline of rock, the drops sheer on either side so they were outlined against the sky. Hercules strode in front, Iolaus behind him. Unable to quite maintain the same determined, easy pace of the two very fit and somewhat younger men, Pithus trailed a little behind them. As night began to fall, so that they’d soon need to find a cave or a stand of rock for shelter against the cold wind and the darkness, Iolaus called out to his friend.
“Hey, Herc, I’ve got a surprise for you.” Iolaus snickered a little, irrepressible humour rich in his voice.
Slowing, alerted by the teasing tone, the demigod turned to look back at his best friend, as he asked curiously, “What is it?”
As he came up and paused beside his friend, Iolaus informed him cheerfully as his eyes danced with laughter, “Ania made us some food for the road-in case we got hungry.”
The two friends gazed at one another for a moment, smiles playing around their lips, and then they turned as one to call out to the older man struggling up the incline behind them, “Hey, Pithus, are you hungry?”
Pithus looked at them in confusion when they didn’t wait for him to reply, not understanding as they both burst into gales of laughter and turned to continue their journey.
They camped that night in a small but adequate cave that kept them out of the wind. At dawn, they were already up; ready to finish their journey. As the hours passed, they descended from the rocky, snow-covered heights, through another forest and then across green fields flecked with the crimson of wild poppies. Pithus got edgier as they neared a dark forest, and started at the least sound as they traversed it, though neither hero heard or saw anything to cause undue concern. Finally, they came out of the forest, again skirting around a sand bar and a narrow but fast moving river, heading toward a bridge and the village beyond. As they drew closer, they realized their arrival had been noticed as voices rose in excited, relieved announcement and greeting.
A man’s voice could be heard shouting to others, “Pithus! Hey, everybody, Pithus is back! They’re here! Down by the river!”
“It’s Pithus,” another man called out eagerly, one whose name they would learn was Tiber, “Hey, everyone! Pithus is back!”
As they clattered across the narrow suspension bridge, a small group of men and boys gathered to meet them and Pithus moved forward, reaching out to grasp the arms of his friends and comrades, as he called, “Hey, everybody-I’m back!”
Iolaus heard a man Pithus later called Helmet murmur in awe, “By the gods-I was sure he was dead.”
Delighted by his success in bringing them salvation, Pithus turned to introduce the demigod as he continued to lead the way into the village, “This is Hercules! I brought him back to save Gargarensia! Everybody, come on out!”
Someone called out, his voice relieved, “Welcome back!”
Nervous, his friends and fellow villagers hung back a bit, so Pithus encouraged them further, “Come on out, everyone! It’s Hercules, everybody! He’s come to help us!” In his excitement at bringing the already famous though still quite young hero, Pithus didn’t even think to introduce Iolaus. But the blond warrior just grinned to himself in wry amusement, used to being overlooked when he stood in Hercules’ shadow.
Reassured, several pushed closer, murmuring or calling out in relief, “That’s great,” or “Wonderful! Wonderful!”
Looking around, Pithus asked, “Where’s Franco? Is Franco here?”
A young boy of perhaps six or seven years, with short brown hair and a freckle on his right cheek, rushed across the village green, his face alight as he ran toward his father, calling out with unrestrained relief and glad welcome, “Father! You made it!”
Pithus fondly swung his son up in a tight hug, calling fondly, “Franco!” Laughing as he held his son in his arms, he turned him toward the tall demigod, as he said, “Look-I brought Hercules to help us.”
Eager, his large brown eyes wide with innocence, Franco blurted, “Uh, I’ve heard of you, Hercules. You’re the strongest and bravest.” Oblivious to his father’s indulgent laughter, the child carried on, “Let me be your guide. I’ll lead you to them.”
Having no intention of allowing his son anywhere near those deadly woods, but wanting to save his son’s dignity, Pithus settled the boy on the ground and pointed toward Iolaus as he replied, “Franco…I don’t think so. Hercules already has a partner.”
Hercules’ still unnamed ‘partner’ had been looking around the village, his initial curious interest giving way to cautious surprise as he noticed that only men and boys surrounded them. “You know?” he observed to the demigod, “There’s something missing in this town.”
Nodding, Hercules signalled that he’d already noticed the same thing as he asked, “Pithus? Where are the women?”
“Well, um, they…” he began uncertainly.
“Well, they…” Hector tried to help, but his voice, too, faded off.
Rallying, Pithus asserted, “They were stolen by the beasts.”
Hector’s immediate support of this explanation was suspicious in its eagerness, “Yeah-years and years ago.”
“All of them?” the demigod muttered sceptically to Iolaus, neither of them having heard this rather significant fact before, and then he nodded his head toward two little boys, one child of three or four holding a fussing infant. “But he can’t be more than a few months old,” Hercules observed, wondering why they weren’t being told the truth.
Pithus turned to look at the children, and then shifted his gaze back to Hercules as he explained, “Sometimes, babies are left on the riverbank.”
Finding it all increasingly odd, Hercules pressed for more information, frowning as he asked, “You mean, they’re abandoned? Whose are they?”
Staunchly, Pithus responded, “They belong to us.”
“But whose were they?” Hercules demanded, exasperation becoming evident in his tone and posture.
Undeterred, Pithus asserted, “We raise them as our own.”
Frustrated, the demigod snapped back, “But where do they come from?”
“I told you,” Pithus replied with as much calm deliberation as he could muster, “They’re left on the riverbank.”
Leaning in toward Hercules, Iolaus muttered, “Why do I get the feeling we’re not getting the whole story?”
Coldly, the demigod replied, “‘Cause we’re not. Look,” he continued, clearly running out of patience with the run-around, “have any of you ever seen the beasts?” Murmurs of assent greeted his question. “What do they look like?” Hercules demanded then, hoping for clearer answers than he’d gotten to his questions about the evident dearth of women in the village.
“Well, the one I saw looked like a wolf,” Pithus reported.
Tiber injected with, “The one I saw had the face of a bear.”
And Hector, standing behind Iolaus, confided, “The one I saw looked more like a hawk.”
Moving a little away from the men and their evasive, inconsistent replies, Iolaus murmured to Hercules, “What do you think?”
Shaking his head with irritation, the demigod replied, “I don’t know. But I have a feeling we’ll find out as soon as we meet these creatures face-to-face.”
Seeing no point in hanging around a village with evidently nervous, even frightened, but evasive men, the heroes turned to head back into the forest, to find out for themselves what the mystery was about. Iolaus left his bow and quiver with Pithus, knowing the weapon would be of little use in the close growth of the jungle-like forest they’d traveled through on the way to the village. Franco called out, “Goodbye, Hercules! Good luck!” and his wishes were echoed by the deeper voices of the men who seemed sincere as they shouted, “Goodbye, now.” “Goodbye!”
Reflecting on the odd behaviour of the men of the village as he led the way back across the narrow suspension bridge over the river, Iolaus recalled their tense pallor, the fear shadowing their eyes, and their quite evident relief at believing Hercules would save them from whatever these monsters were. Thoughtfully, he observed to his best friend, “Well, one thing’s for sure. Those men are scared out of their minds-every one of `em.”
Made uneasy by the odd behaviour of the villagers, wondering again if he shouldn’t have left Iolaus safe back in Thebes-wondering even more if Iolaus was sorry he’d come, Hercules asked quietly, “What about you?”
“Me?” Iolaus asked, honestly surprised by the question. “What have I got to be scared of?”
Shrugging, Hercules replied, “I don’t know-whatever’s out there in those woods…”
Chuckling with bravado to reassure his younger friend, Iolaus’ voice was a tad disparaging as he insisted, “Oh, come on. There’s nothing anywhere that can frighten me.”
Smiling in response, Hercules teased, “Unless, of course, it’s more of Ania’s cooking.”
“Hey!” Iolaus snorted back, pretending umbrage, but he laughed as he carried on along the path by the river and then up the long hill of sand toward the forest beyond.
Breathing a little heavily from the steep, long climb, Iolaus called out to his friend who was walking a pace behind him, “So, Hercules, maybe this time you should be carrying a weapon.”
Snorting, Hercules rejoined, “What do I need a weapon for?”
“Because,” Iolaus paused, letting his friend come abreast of him, “maybe, the other guy has one.” Iolaus pulled his sword to make his point, intending to begin a mock battle to amuse themselves as they traveled.
Hercules blandly and smoothly plucked the sword from his friend’s unwary grip and then, as he continued to stride along without pause, tossing it back over his shoulder as he said, “So, let him carry it.”
Iolaus caught the weapon in midair and sheathed it as he called to his friend’s back, “I let you do that.” Laughing, he continued, “So, what do you think of, ‘Iolaus, Jr.’?”
“‘Iolaus, Jr.’?” Hercules echoed with a small grin.
“Yeah, for my firstborn,” Iolaus clarified with casual confidence.
Smirking, Hercules couldn’t resist asking, “Well, what if it’s a girl?”
Grinning in return as he caught up and again took the lead, Iolaus explained with mock seriousness, as if it mattered or he really cared, “Ah, no girls. Ania and I agreed-five sons.”
Laughing outright, Hercules snickered, “All named ‘Iolaus’?”
Filled with great good humour, Iolaus called back over his shoulder, “Yeah, I gotta remember `em all, don’t I?”
Laughing together, they reached the verge of the forest and entered into its deep shadows.
They’d been cautiously but determinedly pushing through the thick heavy growth of trees for some time, as they pressed deeper into the dim forest, when Iolaus, not having found any mysterious or oddly shaped tracks, observed with some asperity, “So, where are these beasts? I hope we haven’t come all this way for nothing.”
Watchful, always less impatient than his friend, Hercules replied quietly, “Be patient. We’ll find them soon enough.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Iolaus replied. But they’d not gone much farther when he caught something out of the corner of his eye along with the whiff of putrefaction hanging heavily in the humid air. Turning, he grimaced at the grisly sight of two dead men, strung up by their heels, rotting in the shadows. “Hey,” he called to Hercules, to draw his friend back. “What do you think? Some kind of warning?” he asked, his voice tense, as they studied the grim scene.
“Maybe it’s just the way these beasts have fun,” Hercules responded with tight anger at the way the victims had been treated. Whatever else the villagers had said or not said, they hadn’t lied about men being murdered in the forest. But it was a strange ‘beast’ that strung men up with rope, to leave them hanging from a tree like trophies.
There was a sudden sound, a muffled howl, and their heads snapped up, listening to determine the direction from whence it came.
“Over there,” Iolaus said, gesturing to the west. As they moved forward, Hercules pulled a thick, shoulder-high dead and branchless sapling from the earth, arming himself with an impromptu lance-like club. It was one thing to travel without weapons, another to go up against an untold number of murderers with no weapon at all.
“Keep your eyes open, Iolaus,” Hercules murmured as they made their way cautiously and silently over the forest floor that was thickly covered with long dead and rotting leaves. They heard swishing sounds of foliage moving around them, caught the barest glimpse of horrifying faces before they disappeared, as if figments of a frightened imagination. There were other hoots, and growls, the calls of carnivores and raptors that hunted for their meat.
Pausing in a small clearing, dim with the shadowy light that barely made it through the thick canopy of leaves high above them, the air misty with heavy dampness, Iolaus muttered, “They’re watching us right now-I can feel it.”
Turning to him, Hercules nodded, his head tilted as he listened, “Me, too.”
Suddenly, ropes dropped heavily from branches high above them, and then creatures were swarming down toward them. Legs and arms like men, bodies protected by hard leather clothing, heads sporting wild, ugly distortions of the visages of bears and wolves, hunting cats and hawks, the attackers quickly surrounded them with eerie silence. The heroes had unconsciously already moved into their ‘back to back’ stance, and Iolaus had pulled his sword, while Hercules raised the thick impromptu lance.
“Well, Iolaus, you wanted an adventure…” Hercules muttered wryly as they waited for the enemy to come to them.
In seconds they were encircled by the strange creatures that twirled lengths of thin leather ropes and rapiers, spun lances and swords so fast that the swish of their movement filled the air, as they moved in, otherwise silent and implacable in their bearing. One lashed out with the odd leather whip swinging in one hand, and it snaked out to loop with a stinging, cutting bite around Iolaus’ neck, winding tightly like a garrotte, even as two more of the creatures lashed out with similar attacks, their whips tangling around the demigod’s forearms, restraining him between them.
But they’d not anticipated Hercules’ unearthly strength, or his companion’s skill as a warrior. Even as Iolaus cut the taut leather vine that had threatened to choke him, with the razor sharp edge of his sword, Hercules yanked hard on the lengths that bound him, pulling his attackers off balance, dragging them closer to him as they stumbled to the ground. He backhanded one sharply, the body flying back through the forest, and then swivelled quickly to kick away the other. Iolaus, too, was holding his own, exchanging slashes of swords, ducking away from the thrust of a spear, kicking out with sharp and effective precision as he drove his attackers back. One attacker slashed through the thick lance Hercules carried, but he didn’t retreat as expected but moved in, backhanding the enemy, his blow strong enough to render his antagonist unconscious. Two more came at Hercules with spears, but he dropped the stub of the lance and grabbed the shafts, twisting his wrists to snap the hafts, flipping them in his hands, intending to throw them back at their assailants.
But suddenly, as silently and swiftly as they’d come, their attackers whipped back up the ropes with uncanny speed, to disappear into the branches overhead, the ropes snaking up behind them. And then there was nothing but silence, as if they’d never been. Warily, the two heroes looked around but all evidence of the attack was gone; the weapons, the unconscious bodies, had been spirited away into the undergrowth or above into the trees. Wordlessly, the men cautiously moved forward, taut with alertness, waiting for the next attack.
Their tension grew as they walked slowly and warily for five long minutes through the unnaturally silent forest. The heavy, humid air clung to their skin, oppressive and sticky. Suddenly, Iolaus yelped as something grabbed his ankles and dragged him down into the earth, his sword flying as he lost his grip.
Hercules turned back and hastily grabbed his friend’s arm, his strength more than a match for whatever held Iolaus as the demigod yanked him free of the earth.
“Where’d my sword go?” Iolaus demanded, scanning the ground, unable to believe it could just disappear, shaken by whatever had grabbed hold of him with such a powerful and relentless grip.
“Who needs a sword?” Hercules muttered back, unhappy with the weird attacks of what quite clearly weren’t monsters or beasts but wily and dangerous men. “Forget it.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus replied, his voice tight, continuing as he remembered to be grateful he wasn’t still being pulled down under the earth, “And…thanks.”
But Hercules raised a hand to signal silence, muttering, “Hold on,” as he continued to pace forward, his eyes scanning the ground. One step after another, moving silently and carefully, he searched and then suddenly bent forward, pulling one of the ‘beasts’ from the ground and tossing it away.
Suddenly, they were again surrounded as innumerable attackers sprang up out of the earth around them, weapons drawn and ready as they again closed in on the heroes.
“Be careful, Iolaus,” Hercules cautioned, only too well aware that they were both now unarmed as he felt Iolaus’ back against his own. In moments, they were engaged in combat, ducking the swing of swords, kicking out and tossing assailants away, more than holding their own. One attacker came at Hercules, swords in both hands whirling, but as the enemy lunged forward to slash the demigod, he caught first one wrist and then the other, butting the garish animal mask with his head. As the attacker sagged toward the ground, Hercules pulled the swords into his own hands, tossing one to Iolaus who grabbed it from the air.
“Be careful, Iolaus,” Hercules again cautioned the friend at his back.
“No, be reckless,” Iolaus growled, irritated with the silent, sudden attacks by a ruthless, faceless enemy. “‘Careful’ dies; ‘reckless’ kills.” Monsters might be unpredictable, but men didn’t frighten him. Between them, Iolaus was more than confident that he and Hercules could handle these bastards.
The battle raged unabated, weapons slashing and clanging in the forest, as they drove the creatures back time and again. But one got in a lucky cut, slashing Iolaus’ cheek just under his left eye with the tip of a lance.
“Ow!” Iolaus yelled and reached up to gingerly touch his bloodied face. Furious at how close he’d come to losing an eye, he snarled and lunged after the one who had wounded him. This battle had gone on long enough and it was time that they captured one of these bozos and found out what in Tartarus was going on.
“No, Iolaus!” Hercules called after him. “Stay at my back!”
But Iolaus’ blood was hot, his temper unleashed, and he paid no heed to his friend’s urgent shout. He caught one and knocked the enemy to the ground, unconscious, then carried on after two more, exchanging sword thrusts and slashes, pressing one hard against a tree while he kicked and slashed back at another until that one, too, was knocked out by a hard kick.
Fully occupied with attackers of his own, Hercules cut frequent, anxious, glances in his best friend’s direction, but he could see Iolaus was more than equal to the challenge presented by the warriors opposing them. In any case, there was little time to worry, with the horde of enemy around him, trying to cut him down as he leapt, kicked, punched and slashed as he fought for survival with his own sword.
Iolaus moved in on his assailant, disarming the guy and using his own body to press him hard back into the tree, his arm across the masked attacker’s neck. Angry, he pushed the mask up and away, startled at what he saw, suddenly realizing what had happened to all the women from the village-they were Amazons! Not that his new knowledge made any better sense of the situation but there had to be some reason that Amazons would have attacked the men of the village-they weren’t simply wanton, monstrous killers, at least none of the Amazons he’d ever known had been. The surprise weakened his vigilance and he failed to notice the undulating blade of the knife that was soundlessly pulled from the belt of the one he’d accosted and unmasked as he turned his head to call over his shoulder to his friend, “Hercules, it’s a woman!”
She stabbed deeply, hard into his gut, twisting the blade viciously before she pulled it out, and he gasped in shock, as his legs seemed to turn to water beneath him. He turned back to her, a disbelieving expression on his face, but she pulled away from him and disappeared into the bush. Iolaus sagged into the tree, trying to stand, and feeling his strength ebbing away from him. An agony of pain replaced it, spiralling up from his belly and into his chest, making him gasp for breath. Weak, he sank to the ground, still trying to support himself against the tree at his back. His eyes were losing focus, his mouth open as he sought air, but he couldn’t seem to draw it in.
Hercules had looked up at his shout, and saw his friend falter and fall against the tree, turning as he sagged to the ground, a line of blood smearing his face, one hand pressed hard against his belly, trying to stop the gushing river of crimson that already stained his shirt and pants.
“IOLAUS!” Hercules screamed in horror, breaking off his own fight as he tore through the forest toward his friend, oblivious of everything but the stricken, wide look of surprise and suffering on Iolaus’ suddenly too pale face. Hercules skidded to the ground beside his fallen friend, abandoning his sword so that he could reach out and gather shaking shoulders into the support of his arms; he lifted Iolaus from the ground and gently cradled him against his chest, his free hand fumbling to grasp cold, bloodstained fingers.
Iolaus gripped Hercules’ hand, struggling to hold onto awareness that was fast sliding away into a darkness he knew he’d never wake from. So fast, it was all happening so fast. No time to say all he wanted, no time, only a searing, blistering pain that filled him, constricting his chest, robbing his lungs of air. He could feel Herc’s strong arm supporting his head and shoulders, feel the grip of his friend’s strong fingers and see the terrible fear in the demigod’s eyes and face. He was dying. He knew it. He could feel it.
He grunted against the pain as he struggled to draw in enough air to speak. Gasping, wanting to somehow ease the inevitable for Herc’s sake if not his own, he panted, “We fought well…you and me… didn’t we?”
Hercules’ throat was thick with fear and denial as he stared into Iolaus’ eyes and saw the awareness of death clouding them. His whole body tight with despair and a hateful helplessness, Hercules grated, “You’re not gonna die, Iolaus.” Swallowing, his voice cracking, breaking, he begged, “You can’t. We said we’d go out together-remember? Back-to-back…heroes…”
The anguish in his best friend’s face and voice filled Iolaus with a deep, aching sorrow. He struggled against the darkness that edged his vision, not wanting to go…wanting so much to live. But it was all slipping away so fast, like grains of sand through his fingers, and he couldn’t hold on. He was sorry, so very sorry, to be unable to alleviate the horror and pain in Hercules’ eyes, to be unable to tell him that he’d stay, that he’d live until the day they were ready to go to Elysium together. “I can’t…wait…Hercules,” he managed to stammer, wanting to say so much more, but he lacked the strength. He grimaced with the pain that lanced through him and he shuddered with it.
“Iolaus-no,” Hercules begged, his voice clogged with tears, his eyes burning now as he blinked moisture away, needing to look into Iolaus’ eyes, needing to see the life that still flickered there. He held Iolaus tighter, as if he could hold the fragile, broken vestige of life with his strength and not let it slip away, even as he felt Iolaus shudder with agony and despair in his arms.
Swallowing, Iolaus sobbed in another breath. There was something he had to say, a last message he had to give. “Tell Ania,” he gasped with poignant, heartbreaking grief, faltering as his strength bled from him, “how much I wanted to be…her husband.”
Devastated, Hercules could only stare down at his friend, his heart breaking into splinters as he saw the light in Iolaus’ eyes begin to darken and fade away.
“Goodbye, my friend,” Iolaus sighed brokenly with his last breath, holding Hercules’ gaze until the darkness overcame him. His eyes glazed and his head fell forward as his body went completely still and limp in Hercules’ arms. The demigod sensed the presence of Celesta, a quick flicker on the edge of his sight, and then she was gone, bearing Iolaus’ soul with her…
“No!” Hercules choked out, his voice a bare whisper as he curled closer, bending over the body of his life-long friend, unable to accept, to believe, that Iolaus was gone. He gathered Iolaus’ lifeless body close to his own, holding him so tightly, unable to let go. But he knew with a sick shaft of horror that Iolaus was gone, forever lost to him. And he couldn’t bear it. “No…Iolaus!” he begged, barely able to speak through a throat tight with devastating, overwhelming grief.
For as long as he could remember, Iolaus had always been there for him. Strong, confident, cocky and resolute by turns, vibrant with energy, good humour and the simple, passionate joy of being alive. His rock. His foundation. The one he trusted most and counted on beyond all others. It was inconceivable to think Iolaus was so swiftly and irrevocably gone. Never had Hercules ever truly believed this moment was possible. Iolaus had been too full of life to die. This couldn’t be happening, not here, not now. Especially not now. Iolaus should never have been here. He was supposed to be married in just a few more days. His life was just beginning…it couldn’t end. Gods, no, Iolaus couldn’t just be gone forever…he couldn’t really be dead.
Desperate, still wanting to deny the unendurable reality, Hercules looked up and around, as if help might be at hand, only to find himself surrounded by the enemy. Protectively, he clutched Iolaus’ body even closer as one of the murderous creatures threatened with a lance, as if Iolaus could still be hurt and Hercules still needed to defend him. Certainly, the demigod had no thought, no care, for his own danger in those moments. He was numb with loss, everything else unreal and irrelevant. Of no import. What did it matter what they did to him now?
Iolaus was dead.
A voice of command snapped out, staying the one with the threatening spear, “No, stop! The Queen will want to kill him.”
They wanted to take Iolaus from him, but he snarled, his eyes flashing and his muscles bunching, ready to fight them if they dared molest his friend, dared brutalize his body. So they backed off, wary of his strength and the maddened fury they read in his eyes. For a moment, there was only silence as he glared at them. But then he turned his attention back to the dead man in his arms, swallowing as he tenderly laid Iolaus down onto the soft bed of leaves. The demigod gently closed the empty staring eyes, and for a long moment, Hercules gazed down at the still, now peaceful face. His own face pale and strained with inexpressible sorrow, he took a breath, to steady his emotions and trembling hands, oblivious of the silent tears that streaked his haggard cheeks. Hercules carefully straightened his friend’s limbs and then painstakingly covered his body with soft leaves. An inadequate grave, but the demigod silently vowed he’d be back to retrieve his best friend’s body and that he would bear Iolaus home again.
But, first, he had to deal with these monstrous women who had ruthlessly murdered his best friend. One had said something about a ‘queen’. Whoever she was, whoever they all were, Hercules vowed in his heart that he would have retribution, that they would pay for taking Iolaus from him, worse-for having robbed Iolaus of his future. Much as he wanted to tear into the warriors who surrounded him and grind their bones into dust, he knew if he did, he might never understand why Iolaus had had to die…might never punish this ‘queen’ for having brought this horror into reality.
Wordlessly, he stood when he’d finished covering his friend’s body. Without resistance, he let them strip off his vest and shirt, gag him and bind him in chains. Nor did he resist when they lashed him to a wooden frame that they then dragged along behind a horse. Like a statue, he endured their rough attentions, neither by word nor act signifying that he was aware of them, nor was he really. His mind was elsewhere, roaming corridors of memories with Iolaus, holding on to all he had left of his closest friend, beginning to feel the weight of guilt for having brought Iolaus on this disastrous ‘adventure’. Deep inside, the young demigod knew he might blame these women for Iolaus’ death, but the responsibility was his to bear alone. He was very nearly oblivious to the journey as he was hauled through the forest until they came to a large, open meadow that existed in the very heart of the jungle-like domain.
In the meadow was a village.
And in the village, girl children played while women worked on various chores, or practiced their warrior skills, or kept watch from a high wooden tower. On through the village they dragged him, and he could hear the woman drilling the others drone on self-righteously, encouraging her warriors to prepare for yet more slaughter…
“The enemy may look insurmountable, but he is just flesh and blood. Use his strength to destroy him, to defeat him. His strength will be his weakness. His pride, his downfall. We fight because we have to fight. We fight for our way of life. The day we do not fight, for who we are and what we can be, is the day they take it away from us, again-as they always have before.”
He heard an old woman call out eagerly as she stumbled alongside the mounted women, “Now, that’s a good one, Lysia. I’ll give ya three goats and a wagon ‘a hay for him.”
Lysia laughed mirthlessly as she called back, “Not for sale. This one’s going to the Queen.”
Snorting, the old woman replied, “Not the man. The horse!”
Despite himself, Hercules could not resist looking around, starting in surprise when he saw a cluster of small, innocent children at play in this camp of war. There were no men, no boys. Everywhere he looked, he only saw girls and women. One of them, sharpening a cleaver on an iron wheel waved the ugly blade at him as she shouted, “My father used to chase my mother with one of these. No one chases me.”
It wasn’t a temporary war camp…it was a well-established village, with well-built cottages and an imposing building before which they stopped, which he assumed was the domicile of the queen.
As they freed him from the frame of wood, Lysia sneered, “If you’re looking for men, you won’t find any-not in the city of Amazons. You’re the only one; and I don’t think you’ll last long.”
His arms still chained to the yoke of wood behind his back, they pushed him along and up the stone steps. He was led into a huge open space, the ceiling lofty, lost in the shadows somewhere far above. Candles lit the cavernous darkness, rich tapestries adorned the walls and warm rugs were scattered on the wooden floor. There were Amazons clustered in small groups around the walls, and more followed them inside as Lysia shoved him further into the interior.
Unexpectedly, Lysia swept his legs out from under him and he crashed to his knees as she said, “I’m sure you’re used to having your way with women. I bet they just fall at your feet, wherever you go. Well, not here. Here, you fall at our feet.”
A wave a rage borne of grief and fury swept over him and he very nearly snapped the pitiful log that held his arms bound behind his back, but a small cold voice in his mind told him to wait, that he did not yet know enough, that he didn’t understand the presence of the very young girl children in this village of women any more than he and Iolaus had understood the village of Gargarensia that had housed only men and boys. Something was very wrong here. Something ugly and deadly, brutal and vicious. But the youngest children had seemed hardly a year old. Whatever this evil was, it had not been here long.
So he gritted his jaw, the gag choking back his words of rage, as his flashing, angry eyes rose to confront the cold gaze of the woman coming to stand before him.
“So, this is the great Hercules, come to destroy us,” the woman drawled, disdainful and unafraid as she descended a low flight of distant steps and sauntered toward him. She was a small, finely boned woman with raven-black long hair and porcelain skin, regal, somehow, in her warrior’s garb of leather and graceful bearing as she moved across the floor.
The demigod glared up at her, filled with hate, and hurt and loathing, wondering how she’d known who he was, or why he and Iolaus had gone to Gargarensia. A bowl of water with a sponge was placed on the floor in front of him, and when the queen placed a delicate bare foot on its rim, someone illogically commanded Hercules to “Wash her feet!” It made no sense as he was bound and gagged; they were but taunting him. His rage bubbled and he swung his body, the log behind him catching the rim of the bowl and flinging it away to crash somewhere against a wall.
The Queen laughed bitterly. “You’d rather die than assume the role of a woman, wouldn’t you?” she crooned and then raised her voice to address her ‘tribe’. “Women of Amazon, this is Hercules, Champion of Men. He’s the best the enemy has to offer, and you’ve put him in chains. Be proud of yourselves.” Turning her gaze back down to the demigod still kneeling at her feet, she said, her voice hard with contempt, “You don’t quite know what to make of us, do you, Champion? You’ve never been defeated before, certainly not by a band of women. If you only knew how much pleasure this gives me.”
She pulled a vicious knife with an undulating blade from the scabbard at her waist and held it before his face, amused when he didn’t so much as flinch. Sliding the blade between the ragged gag and his skin, she cut the rough linen apart.
Hercules shook his head as he spat the foul rag away. “Pleasure is the last thing I’d give you, you murdering witch,” he grated.
“It’s not a question of you giving it. Only whether or not I want to take it,” she sneered.
“Did you take pleasure in killing Iolaus?” he demanded, needing to know, to understand the insanity that seemed to drive these women to such atrocities.
Looking away, no regret in her voice, she replied, “It’s too bad about your friend, but we have every right to defend ourselves. After all, you came to destroy us.”
“That’s not true,” the demigod protested angrily.
“Well then, what is?” she asked with feigned interest, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “You were lost? Two lost lambs, wandering in the woods?”
“We were sent by the men across the river,” Hercules replied, his voice hoarse as he wondered why he bothered to explain anything to her, to any of them.
“And they sent you to destroy us?” she pressed, convinced that that was the precious truth he had spoken of.
“They sent us to destroy a beast. We didn’t know the beast was you,” the demigod snapped back.
“Ah, they told you we were beasts?” she murmured with a sigh, before she continued bitterly, “Still so stuffed with male pride, they had to lie to you.”
Hercules slowly shook his head at her words. “From what I’ve seen,” he scorned, “it wasn’t a lie.”
“We’re not beasts, Hercules,” she protested. Her voice lifted with pride as she looked around at her gathered host and proclaimed, “We are women!”
“Hardly,” Hercules replied flatly with disgust.
“Just because we’re not the kind of women you would like us to be, make no mistake, these are women. Women who will not be controlled by men, not beaten down, not bought and sold like oxen. Men will never dominate these women,” she lectured him, her voice ringing with pride. The voices of the women who surrounded them rose in exultation, cheering her on.
Snorting at the posturing, Hercules cut back, “We don’t dominate you; we protect you.”
The Amazon Queen burst into laughter as she mocked, “Oh, I see, you protect us!”
“Yes,” asserted Hercules, “men protect the women they care about, any woman in need who may be threatened with harm.”
“Do you really?” she challenged back. “I don’t think so.” Studying him, bound and apparently helpless at her feet, she observed with wry amusement, “It hardly seems that we are the ones in need of protection.”
Looking away, the demigod muttered, “You’ve got an advantage-at the moment.”
“Yes, I suppose I do,” she murmured back, dropping to her knees and leaning toward him seductively, playing the temptress. “What are you looking at, Hercules?” she asked, misreading the intensity burning in his eyes for helpless attraction. “Do you find me attractive?” Her voice dropped further, a sensuous whisper as she continued, “My legs? My breasts? My lips? Your friend is dead. I’ve got you in chains. You hate me. And yet, you still desire me.” She leaned in, as if to kiss him, while he remained as still as a statue carved from marble, as still and as cold.
Pulling away, irritated by his resistance, not wanting to acknowledge his lack of response to her seduction, she growled as she stood and paced a step away, “You’re pathetic. There’s no point in talking to you anymore. You’ll never understand what makes a woman.”
“You’ll never understand what makes a man,” he countered swiftly with enough cold irritation to match her own. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Oh, but I do,” she spat back, with maddening confidence, making him wonder what she knew of him…and how.
Lysia hauled him to his feet, shoving him forward behind the Queen as the other woman waved at her to bring him as she turned to walk away across the large hall. “Follow Hippolyta,” Lysia commanded him harshly, at last giving him a name for the haughty queen."
Bending near the hearth, Hippolyta picked up a thick, white candle, its flame flickering as she turned back to face him. Hercules paused, his eyes narrowing as he saw the symbol of the peacock presiding over the alter…Hera’s symbol where Artemis’ would have been expected. But he didn’t have time to think about it as Lysia once again pushed him down to his knees as Hippolyta said, “I’ll show you. I’ll show you exactly what it is that makes a man. Go back. Go back and live your life again. Let’s see who you really are.”
She knelt to hold the candle before his face and blew the smoke into his eyes. He twisted his face away, but dizziness assailed him as the world around him tilted and blurred. Dimly, he was aware that he was somehow shrinking, his body transforming back through childhood until he was no more than an infant crawling out of his clothing and away from the restraints that had bound him. It made no sense, nor did he have time to wonder at the experience of it. Images rose before him, compelling his attention, memories from his earliest moments of childhood…
Zeus appeared young and robust, crowing proudly as he cuddled his newest son, “Ooh-hoo! My, look at who I see!” Laughing with delight, the King of the Gods continued crooning to his son, “How has this big wide world been treating you? It’s all out there for you, Son. More than you can imagine. Yours is gonna be such a wonderful life.” Zeus tilted his head, watching Alcmene in a mirror as she moved across the next room, naked, to enter her tub of scented water, listening to her humming as she took her bath, and then he gazed again upon his son, murmuring in a conspiratorial whisper, “And women! Let me tell you, there’s nothing like a beautiful woman. Believe me, women are the sweetest journey you will ever take. But don’t be afraid. Take a lot of them!"
Zeus laughed lustily at his own words as he held his beloved son close…
He could hear Hippolyta’s voice taunting him through the haze of smoke and memories, “Did you see, Hercules? That’s who you are. The son of your father. Women mean nothing to him, nor to you. They’re just play toys to be used and then thrown away. Your father-all fathers, teach this to their sons on the day that they’re born. And it doesn’t change as you grow older…”
Hercules again felt his body change as he grew into the form of the child he’d once been. The smoke and colours swirled and coalesced into another memory. He and Iolaus as children, wrestling in the school yard, young boys playing at being heroes, when they’d been interrupted by a grizzled teacher who’d been a soldier until he’d received a disabling war wound.
Oblivious to the teacher who stood and watched them at play, a very young, tousle-haired Iolaus, no more than nine years old, clamped hard in a head-lock by his younger but much stronger friend, laughed breathlessly as he called to Hercules, “What…whaddya…whaddya say we call it a draw?”
The teacher smiled with a cold pleasure as he bellowed at them, pleased to have found them in a skirmish, pretending to be warriors. “Good match, Hercules, Iolaus,” he approved. “You should be proud of yourselves. You’ll become good, strong warriors someday. Keep practicing and one day you’ll go far, maybe graduate from a good Academy. You’ll go off into the world, taking with you the truths you’ve learned that when you fight, you fight to the death. Cultivate hardness, ‘cause a man is stone. If you have any emotions left, grind them to the dust. Emotions are for the weak, for girls. Most of all, remember this,” the embittered man stressed as he gripped their thin shoulders, “you’ll be known by the enemies you make. So-make good ones!”
Hercules saw his friend look away. Hercules was young, but old enough to know that Iolaus’ family was poor and he could never dream of attending an expensive Academy. As the teacher droned on, Iolaus looked up at him, a peculiar expression on his face, as if even in his extreme youth, he understood the words were nonsense, no way to live a life. But Hercules, younger still, was caught up by the excitement in the man’s voice, and he heard himself vow to Iolaus, his voice high and childish, but solemn with sincere commitment, “You and me, Iolaus-we’ll fight back-to-back-and die together! Battlefield heroes!”
Iolaus had smiled indulgently then at his younger and impressionable friend, but he sobered as he clasped the arm that Hercules held out to him with such serious intensity. With the solemn respect of one warrior to another, Iolaus vowed in his turn, “We’ll die together. I promise.”
Hercules felt his chest tighten at the words, and he moaned with the pain of his foolish words and Iolaus’ vow. Once too many times, Iolaus had followed him into danger; once too many times, he’d guarded Hercules’ back only to let a momentary fury distract him…and cost his life. Tears gathered in the demigod’s eyes as he writhed on the floor, sick at heart and aching with their childish innocence…and his loss.
But Hippolyta’s voice intruded again as the memory clouded and dissipated into another dizzying swirl of colours and smoke, as she observed coldly, “There again, women are nothing in your world. They’re weak, polluted with emotion. But what great thing is it to be a man? Hammered into killing tools? No feelings except for hate? No strengths but those to destroy? Tell me, when has a man brought life into the world? When does a man deliver anything but death?”
Hercules wanted to protest her words, but his throat was thick and clogged with the memories and his despair. It was as if he were mute, unable to contest her words, constrained to listen and watch the visions of memories that played out the years at the Academy as they’d trained as warriors. But, still, a part of him realized in a detached and confused way, that she, too, must somehow be seeing the visions, or how could she speak of them so exactly? He struggled with that thought, but his body was changing again and the last memory began and wrenched at his heart, tearing his soul into tatters…
He heard himself shout, “Be careful, Iolaus.” And he heard his best friend’s hasty, confident response as they readied to meet the armed enemy who closed in on them, their own hands empty as they waited, back to back, “No, be reckless. Careful dies; reckless kills.” Hercules saw the battle play out once again, saw the lucky lash of the lance that cut Iolaus’ cheek and heard his friend’s exclamation of surprise, pain and fury, “Oww!” Helpless to intervene, unable to stop the wretched flow of recollected actions, the demigod again heard his own voice cry out, “No, Iolaus! Stay at my back!”
But Iolaus ran after those who had attacked them, battling with grace and relentless skill, until he had one backed against a tree and moved to flip off the mask that hid the face of his tormentor.
Hippolyta’s voice seared into his mind, taunting, cruel, “You have no idea what women are-but you’ve had your first lesson today.”
Hercules saw Iolaus turn to call back to him in astonishment, “Hercules! It’s a woman!”
He gasped helplessly when he saw Iolaus shudder as the blade entered his friend’s body…saw him stagger and fall against the tree, twisting to face him as Iolaus sank to the ground, his face white with shock and the stark awareness of death’s inevitability. Hercules screamed, his voice resonating with the voice in his memory, loud with horror, sick and afraid, “Iolaus!”
Hercules couldn’t hold back the tears that spilled onto his cheeks, or stop the moan of anguish as he watched himself holding Iolaus…and once again watched his best friend die. “No,” he choked, his voice a hoarse, harsh whisper of pain. “Gods, please…no…”
The memory swirled away into a meaningless frenzy of bright colours until they whirled finally into darkness…
When Hercules was once again aware of his surroundings, he found himself lying curled naked on the floor, unbound with his clothing tossed over his body, covering his hips and groin. It was dark but for the flicker of candles, and very quiet, though he could hear the rustle of clothing and knew he was being watched by many women in the shadows. Uncaring of who might be watching, still haunted by the terrible memories, more by the hideous reality of those memories, he closed his eyes and sighed hopelessly. Iolaus was dead. Nothing he could do would bring his friend back. And, gods, the pain of that loss was worse than anything he’d ever known or could imagine experiencing. His face was wet, as if he’d been weeping even while unconscious, but he was careless of the tears. What did they matter? What did anything really matter now?
Iolaus was dead.
Something must have alerted her to his consciousness. Perhaps it was the aching sigh. Whatever it was, Hippolyta spoke to him from the darkness. “It’s not my intention that you should suffer needlessly. It’s not a female trait. You loved Iolaus. I believe that.”
He couldn’t be bothered to turn his head to look at her. She was the last person he wanted to speak with, but he felt an overwhelming need to talk about his friend. His voice was hollow and quivering with grief as he said haltingly, “He was my best friend. We went through a lot together. I should have never let him come along.”
Thoughtfully, she replied quietly, “You surprise me. It seems, somehow, that a spark of humanity has survived inside you.” Curious, she asked, “Could you love a woman, as you loved Iolaus?”
Hercules thought about that, thought about all that Iolaus had meant to him throughout all the years of his life. Closer than a brother, his protector when they were young and still at school. His loyal comrade and sword-brother at the Academy. The dangers and monsters they’d faced together, Iolaus never turning away, never abandoning him, always there when needed. Enthusiastic, filled with a boundless energy, good-natured and funny, always ready with a joke to cheer or support a friend who bore the burden of being the son of a god. Iolaus. The one he’d always turned to, and trusted with all that he was. Could he love a woman as he’d loved Iolaus? Could he ever again love anyone that much? Sighing, Hercules didn’t know. Doubted it. But he knew Hippolyta was waiting for his answer. So he offered the only thought he could, “It’s different with women.”
“Why?” she demanded. “Women need respect and loyalty just as much as you do. But you’ll never understand that.”
“Of course they do,” Hercules snapped back at her, growing weary of her blind ignorance and constant harping on the worthlessness of men-the stupidity that had led to a siege of fear upon Gargarensia-the wretched hatred that had led to Iolaus’ death. Stirring finally, he pushed himself up on one elbow and turned his face toward her, as he demanded, “What is wrong with you? What has caused this stupid, blind, hate for all men?”
“You wouldn’t understand. You’re a man,” she said, as if that could be the only and final answer.
But it was far from enough to satisfy Hercules. “Uh, uh, no,” he snapped. “That’s too easy. There are enough children, even babies, between your two villages to make it pretty clear that up until recently your women and the men of Gargarensia were families. But something happened, didn’t it? Something has twisted your soul and filled you with hate. The men who loved you, and who you once loved, are now terrified of you…and I’ve seen their corpses rotting in the forest. You’re murderers. Wanton. Merciless. Evil. What happened to you?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she sneered, turning away, made angry by his words that verged too close to the truth for comfort.
“Try me,” he challenged. “If you are so damned sure of the rightness of your actions, explain them to me.”
Furious, she whipped back around to face him, her face stark with anger and grief. “What would you understand or care about a woman who was beaten to death by the man she loved, the father of her children?” she snarled. “Or of another woman who was threatened by a cleaver and barely escaped with her life? You said men protect us! Ha! Protect? Men use us, and brutalize, and kill us on a whim.”
Hercules winced at her words and the anguish in her voice. Swallowing, he shook his head. “One man who kills, even two, who act like insane and conscienceless beasts, abusing the trust of the women they should have died to protect, do not make all men animals who deserve to be slaughtered like mad dogs. I’ve met the men in Gargarensia. I’ve seen their gentleness with their children. They aren’t all murderers. Gods, they are afraid of YOU. Of YOU murdering THEM! Because you do. YOU masquerade as beasts and you hunt and slaughter them for no reason!”
“They should be afraid,” she snapped. “They warrant no mercy. It was only a matter of time before they killed us all.”
Shaking his head, caught by the fiery light of madness in her eyes, Hercules murmured, “You’re insane, do you know that?”
“Insane?” she echoed and then laughed coldly. “No, I’m not insane. I’ve been given visions by the goddess, shown truths about the hearts of men…and given a mission by her to wreak our revenge upon all of your kind.”
Unconsciously, Hercules pulled his thin linen shirt over his head as he sat up, chilled by her words. Artemis was the goddess of the Amazons, but his sister had never demonstrated such antipathy for men. Something else was going on here. Remembering the shrine surrounded by candles, a cold ball of awareness settled in Hercules’ chest as he realized who must be behind the madness and the wanton murders. “And this goddess? She told you about me, too, didn’t she? She told you that Iolaus and I were coming to the forest to kill all of you.”
“Yes,” Hippolyta hissed, “she did.”
“She lied,” Hercules snarled back, his eyes narrowing with cold understanding. He might not care much for his father’s family, but there was only goddess he knew of who loathed all men because of the infidelity of her husband, and who wantonly sought every opportunity to kill him. “Hera lied to you. It’s all lies.”
“NO!” Hippolyta cried out. But she backed up a step, shaken by his naming of the goddess. How could he know who had spoken with her, guided her, encouraged her to a rightful vengeance?
“YES!” Hercules shouted back as he rose to his feet, the folds of his sleeveless linen shirt falling to cover his body and hips, but he made no move toward her, not wanting to frighten her, not now. He had to make her listen. Had to make her understand that she been deluded and used to do hateful acts of violence against innocent men. “Hera despises men because her own husband is deceitful and cheats on her every chance he gets. She has a right to her anger, and her pain of the wounds she feels from his disloyalty and infidelity. But, don’t you see? She is using you to play out a fantasy of hate and revenge against all men for what Zeus has done to her!”
“I don’t believe you!” Hippolyta replied sharply, and turned away. But she didn’t leave.
“Listen to me,” Hercules implored, lowering his voice, reaching for a calm he didn’t feel. “Those visions you showed me…you saw them, too. The first was of Zeus himself, holding me in his arms when I was but a babe, sharing his view of women-not mine! And the second vision, of an old, embittered soldier filling the heads of children with dreams of glory, about things those two kids didn’t know anything about! You heard his warped view of the world. Not mine. Not Iolaus’!”
She shook her head tightly, not wanting to listen but unable to stalk away.
“Do you want to know my beliefs, my views about women?” he challenged. “My mother, Alcmene, is a strong, beautiful woman who was deluded by Zeus and given a son by him. But she never became bitter, despite the hateful gossip of other women. No. She raised me to respect women. To be gentle with my strength. To fight for and protect the innocent. She taught me that love is stronger than hate. And…” he continued more quietly, pain resonating in his voice, “do you want to know about Iolaus? His mother didn’t protect him when his father abused him, but he didn’t grow up hating…he grew up wanting to protect those weaker than himself. He grew up dreaming of being a hero who would defend people from monsters who would harm them. All his life, he faced up to bullies and took on impossible odds to do the right thing.”
Hercules voice cracked with emotion, but he forced himself to continue. “When we were at the Academy, both Iolaus and I worked and fought with the Amazon tribe led by Cyanne…we were friends, not enemies. And there was a woman, Lilith, who was our comrade at the Academy-a warrior we respected and trusted every bit as much we respected and trusted any other cadet there.”
Looking away, burdened by unbearable sorrow and guilt, Hercules continued, his voice a hoarse whisper, “Iolaus was to be married next week. To a gentle, sweet woman who can’t cook or sew, but who brightened his soul. He didn’t love her for what she could do for him, as some kind of domestic slave…he loved her for herself. He left her only because we were told there was a village being threatened by monsters, ravaging beasts that had already killed and would soon attack again. He gave his life to come here, to help me save the lives of other people…people he didn’t even know! Because it was the right and decent thing to do! This is the man you’ve had killed! With no chance for discussion or understanding. With no opportunity to find another solution. Viciously. Coldly. You, your precious women, murdered a good, innocent man. And you dare to judge all men, and call men foul, murderous creatures.”
“I didn’t know,” she stammered, confused by his words, not wanting to listen, unable to turn away from the force and power of his conviction…and the honesty of his own pain.
“What about your own sons?” Hercules asked then. “How can you abandon them on the riverbank, as if they were garbage? Will you kill them too, for the crime of being born boys? How can you be so cold? So cruel? Don’t you see? Hera has blinded you with her own hatred. She’s using you to murder innocent people…gods, you’re murdering your own families!”
Her hands covered her ears, trying to shut out his words. She didn’t want to hear. Couldn’t bear the thought that, perhaps, he spoke the truth. In the night, in her dreams, she remembered earlier, gentler times. Remembered loving…and being loved in return.
But she stiffened her back, her hands falling to her side as she turned to face him. “No,” she said. “I will not hear your words. You lie. You’ll kill me as soon as you have the chance, in revenge for the death of your friend. You can’t be trusted.”
Hercules blew out a breath as he shook his head, biting his lip as he wondered what could ever break through the delusion Hera had created. “I don’t lie, Hippolyta,” he said quietly. “And if I was going to kill you, you’d be dead.” He looked down at his hands and flexed his fingers. “I’m a demigod, a son of Zeus. I have the strength of a hundred men. I could cross the small space between us and snap your neck before any of the women watching from the shadows could stop me. Iolaus and I could have killed all the women who fought us in the forest…if your women think back, they’ll realize that we were fighting to defend ourselves, not to kill. None of your people were killed. Though” he confessed, “…I almost killed them all, when they murdered Iolaus.” Looking back up at her, he continued wearily, “But killing them or you won’t bring him back. And, it’s not really your fault, I guess. Hera has blinded you, all of you. Hera hates me, for the only and simple reason that I was born. She has always wanted to destroy me, and anyone I love. This time…” his voice cracked and his eyes blurred with tears as he whispered hoarsely, “this time she succeeded. She’s the enemy. Not you.”
For one terrible moment, he wondered if it was all an elaborate trap set by Hera to arrange his death. A sick, twisted game the goddess had played for months until the men of Gargarensia had finally sought out his help, drawing him into her web. How many had died because she wanted him dead? But he closed his eyes and shook his head, unable to imagine such a hideous depth of depraved and vicious hatred. No one could be that devious, that monstrous. It wasn’t only and always about him. It was about her insane hatred for all men…Iolaus and the other victims had just gotten caught in the war Hera had engineered to punish men as she could never punish Zeus. Shaking his head with the infinite and abiding weariness of overwhelming sorrow, he swallowed and lifted his head to gaze at Hippolyta, wondering if his words had had any impact upon her.
The broken gentleness of his voice cut through her defences. The honest, overwhelming grief in his eyes and voice was no lie, no sham, to delude her. And there was truth in his words. None of her warriors had been more than bruised, though both Hercules and the now dead Iolaus both had the skill to kill had they chosen to do so. Confused, her eyes raked the shadows, seeking the views of the women who followed her and deferred to her leadership.
His next words challenged all of them as he asked with sincerely sad confusion about their motives, “Why didn’t you simply kill your sons when they were born? Why did you leave them for the men to find? Was it only so that they might be raised as prey for your daughters, as victims for them to murder in their turn? Or, is it possible that you loved your sons enough to spare their lives, though not enough to want to raise them? Do you hate your sons as much as you hate the men who fathered them?”
“No!” a woman called out, stepping out of the shadows into the light. Dark-haired, thin, she looked ravaged by his words, exhausted. “I…I love my son. I wonder if he’s well…and happy. Did you see him? A boy of six years, with short dark hair and a freckle on his cheek?”
“You mean Franco?” Hercules asked, turning toward her. “Yes, he’s well. He’s a good, brave boy you could be well proud of.”
Lysia stepped forward as she snapped, “Silence, Meg! Asking such questions can do no good.” Turning toward Hippolyta, the sturdy Amazon continued, “What he says might be true; perhaps we have been deluded by Hera and her promises. But…even if it is true, it’s too late. The men must hate and fear us now. They would never welcome us in peace.”
“NO!” Hercules protested, raising his hands and holding them out as he asked for a chance to make peace between the two hideously estranged communities. “Give me a chance to meet with them, to propose peace between you!”
“Why should I believe you?” Hippolyta demanded. “If we let you go, you might simply return to them and help them prepare to kill us.”
“Maybe, according to Hera, you shouldn’t believe me. But something tells me that you’re strong enough to take the chance, to refuse to be controlled by her, to find out the truth for yourself,” he replied, daring to hope he was right.
Shaking her head, taking a step back, Hippolyta cried, “No. Men are monsters who do nothing except deceive and dominate and kill. We must destroy you all!”
“There must be another way!” Hercules protested, desperate to make her see reason, to give him a chance to defeat Hera’s malicious attempts to destroy all of humanity to assuage her own wounded heart. “Think about it, Hippolyta! If you kill all men, then that’s the end of life! There will be no more children! You will all grow old and die and that will be the end of it. Don’t do this! Don’t let Hera poison your mind with her lies. She cares nothing for you, for any mortal! Gods, she loathes mortal women as much as she hates all men…because my mother is a mortal woman, and Hera can never forgive the fact that Zeus loves her. She’s using you to destroy life, all life! You can’t let her win!”
“No,” Hippolyta murmured, but her face clouded, caught by the sense of his words and the inevitable outcome of Hera’s teachings and directives.
“Please-give me the chance to show you how wrong Hera’s words have been, to prove her lies,” Hercules asked again, his eyes blazing with passionate intensity, pleading with her to accede to reason and not be led by hatred.
“Please…” Meg whispered, her words echoed by other women in the shadows, women who remembered how it had been before Hera had led them to violence, women who missed their husbands and sons.
Swallowing, Hippolyta’s eyes raked the shadows, and then came to rest on Lysia, who shrugged. It was the Queen’s decision. Turning back to Hercules, she finally answered, her voice strained, “I need time to think about what you’ve said. And I need proof of your well-meaning sentiments. You say we haven’t chains strong enough to hold you. Show me that is true, that you have come here, and remain here, of your own free will.”
“Bring me the chains that bound me. Bring me the yoke that you believe held me helpless,” Hercules replied.
There was a scurry of sound, and then two women came forward out of the shadows, one bearing the yoke, the other carrying the chains he had crawled away from only hours before. They laid the restraints at his feet.
Hercules bent to pick up the length of chain. Standing, gripping the links firmly in his fists, he drew his arms apart, muscles scarcely flexing with the effort, and pulled until the links stretched and came apart. Wordlessly, he dropped the pieces of chain to crash upon the floor at his feet. Again, he bent to pick up the thick, sturdy, long rectangle of wood. Gazing at Hippolyta, he shifted it behind his back into the position in which he’d been bound, and then he brought his arms forward and the log cracked loudly and snapped against his back, the pieces dropping to clatter heavily on the floor. The women gasped in the silence.
“You haven’t the means to bind me against my will,” he stated with matter-of-fact confidence. “I came here, and stayed, because I chose to do so. First, because I did intend to wreak my vengeance upon you, but now, because I believe you, as well as the men of Gargarensia, are worth helping, worth saving from Hera’s madness.”
Her eyes wide with amazement, she nodded thoughtfully. “Leave me,” she said to the women. “I must consider our actions and what we must now do.” Lifting her eyes to Hercules, she directed, “Wait outside in the barn until I decide.”
Hercules nodded, then pulled on his pants and vest. Meg dared to approach, to gather up his gauntlets and boots, while he took his belt, and she led him out behind the women, into the night. She showed him to the barn, and as she knelt to place his belongings on the straw-strewn earthen floor, she murmured, “Thank you for trying to help us.”
Before he could respond, she’d swiftly turned away and darted into the deepening dusk.
Sighing, the demigod finished dressing, then moved to stand in the doorway, his throat tight as he gazed up into the darkening sky, at stars Iolaus could no longer see. Filled with the pain and guilt of his loss, he crossed his arms and leaned against the wooden frame, his head bowed as he blinked against the burning in his eyes.
“I didn’t expect to find you here,” a voice startled him from the darkness within the barn. Turning sharply, he saw Artemis materialize and step toward him.
“The men of Gargarensia sent for my help,” he replied quietly, looking away.
“I know,” she replied as she approached closer. Laying a hand on her brother’s arm, the goddess murmured, “I’m sorry about your friend, Iolaus. A truly great hunter, he was one of mine, and I would not have had him murdered here had I been able to stop what is happening. I have made certain the animals of the forest will leave his remains in peace and not harm him further.”
Swallowing, Hercules blew out a long breath. His jaw tight, he looked up into her eyes. “Why have you allowed your subjects to wander so far from the truth, to become such murderous beasts?” he demanded, his voice cold.
Shrugging, she moved away. “This is none of my doing. Hera is responsible,” she replied. “I haven’t the power to go against her alone, so I’ve asked Zeus to intercede-but he’s taking his own sweet time about stopping this abomination.”
Hercules snorted, turning away to again gaze up at the firmament. “Why would he bother?” he asked wearily. “What does he care what happens to mortals?”
“Hera is violating Zeus’ rules of non-interference with other gods!” Artemis snapped, rounding on him. “The Amazons are mine! Hera has no right to be involved with them!”
“Ah, the rights and rules of the gods are at stake,” Hercules remarked bitterly, turning his head to gaze at her over his shoulder. “I was right…the fate of the mortals involved is of little concern to any of you.”
“We don’t despise mortals, Hercules,” she responded, though her voice held no warmth. “I regret the deaths of those who have been butchered because of Hera’s hatred-and I’m grateful to you for trying to make all that is wrong here, right.”
Shrugging, he turned away. Her regret or gratitude meant nothing to him. He wasn’t doing any of this for her or for any of the gods.
“I will help you so much as I’m able,” she said quietly before fading into the darkness.
When they had all left, and she was alone, Hippolyta moved to kneel before her alter to Hera. Confused, she called out to the goddess she worshipped and trusted, “Hera?”
The mirror in the centre of the shrine came alive, swirling with colours until a visage was barely discernible, as the goddess replied, “You’ve done well, Hippolyta. You’ve made me proud with the capture of Hercules.”
Demure, not at all certain that such tribute was warranted, Hippolyta murmured respectfully, “It’s only with the strength that you have given us that we were able to defeat him. We owe our victory to you.”
“Tell me,” Hera demanded, “why is it he’s still alive?”
Hearing the censure in the goddess’ voice, Hippolyta stammered as she tried to explain, “I didn’t see the need to kill him. I’m not so sure he’s the enemy.”
“All men are the enemy,” Hera chastised her, the disembodied voice quaking with anger. “Haven’t I told you that?”
“But Hercules seems…” Hippolyta faltered, searching for the words to appease the goddess, “different. He doesn’t seem as bad as…”
But Hera cut in contemptuously, “Don’t be a fool. Hercules is the worst of them. He wants to control you, to control everything. You have to kill him now, while you can.”
“But I have spoken with him and…” Hippolyta argued, uncomfortable with the command, not certain it was warranted.
“Are you refusing to obey me?” Hera demanded, her voice cracking with fury.
Suddenly afraid, the Amazon Queen stammered, “No, of course not. I would never…”
“Then do as I say,” the goddess directed. “And the moment he’s dead, I want you to carry out the attack on the Gargarensians.”
Bowing her head, angling for time to make her own decisions, Hippolyta whispered, “It will be done.”
Growing restless while he waited, Hercules had begun to pace the length of the barn, stopping from time to time to stroke the muzzles of the curious horses that watched him in the darkness. Once, as he turned, he was surprised to see Zeus sitting on a bale of hay, quietly studying him.
“What are you doing here?” the demigod demanded.
Shrugging, appearing a little embarrassed by his concern, Zeus replied, “I just came to see if I could help you.”
“Help? From you? That’s a new one,” Hercules responded sarcastically.
Standing, stung by the words and tone, Zeus snapped, “Come on! Give me a little credit! What can I do?”
“You can help me fix this mess,” Hercules replied coldly. “You can help me understand how you could allow this obscenity to occur in the first place!”
Zeus shook his head as he turned aside. “Understand? Well, first, I try to let mortals work out things for themselves,” he replied. Sighing, he shook his head as he continued, “But to really understand what has been happening here, you need to understand women-and who can understand them? They’re full of feelings and instincts and they can always outguess you. But, uh, tell me. What are you doing here? I mean, there are no chains forged by Hephaestus holding you in this barn!”
Hercules swallowed as he studied his father, suspecting the god was talking more about Hera than women in general, but he sighed as he answered, “It’s…it’s Hippolyta, all right? There’s something about her.”
"Well,” Zeus leered, “she’s very beautiful.”
Impatient, Hercules waved that observation away. “It’s not that,” he insisted. “She’s different somehow. She’s got strength and power. She has the capacity to be a great leader of her people if only I can get her see that Hera has been blinding her with lies.”
“You know, I fell for strength and power,” Zeus rumbled. “And what did I wind up with? Hera.”
“I’m not falling for her,” the young demigod snapped. Shaking his head, he continued, “I think she has the strength to resist Hera’s lies, to make her own choices. I’ve just got to get her to change her mind, make her see that men aren’t the monsters Hera has led her to believe.”
“Women don’t do that!” Zeus countered. “They don’t change their minds. At least not when you want `em to. Son, just think back about all the things I taught you about women.”
Remembering the very few conversations he’d ever had with his father, and his father’s decidedly cynical views about women given his own marital experience, Hercules replied dryly, “I have been. I’m thinking maybe you were wrong.”
Made thoughtful by his son’s dryly candid observation, Zeus paused a moment, then shrugged as he answered, “Oh, well, maybe I was. But remember, these Amazons are Hera’s favourites. You mess around with them and you’re going to make her very unhappy.”
“Since when has either of us ever cared about Hera’s happiness?” Hercules snorted in disgust. Swallowing, he shook his head. “I’m going to fight her, Zeus,” he said then with a raw, grim determination. Turning away, his jaw tight as he fought the emotion that surged within his chest, he continued passionately, “Because of her insane desire for revenge against you, and, I guess, against me, Iolaus is dead. I will not walk away as if that didn’t happen, as if losing him to her hatred doesn’t matter. I owe this to Iolaus, if not to the people here. His death has to mean something. One way or another, I will find a way to make these Amazons see the truth. I will not let Hera win.”
Zeus’ eyes darkened and he bowed his head, sincerely sorry for the pain he heard in his favourite son’s voice, for the grief and the sorrow at the loss of his best friend. It troubled the King of the Gods, and more, the loss of Iolaus worried him. For a long time now, he’d speculated that the Fates had their reasons for bringing that feisty mortal into his son’s life, and he felt the young man’s death was wrong somehow, that it shouldn’t have happened. But it had. Sighing, certain that his son was ultimately safe from Hera, that she would not dare kill him personally, and confident that Hercules could handle the Amazons, he muttered as he faded away, “Well, I warned you.”
Hippolyta strode across the great hall and out into the growing darkness, unsurprised to find Lysia waiting there for her. Laying a hand on her subordinate’s shoulder, she ordered, “Lysia, spread the word among the women. We ride to Gargarensia tonight-we’ll see if they greet us with hate and fear, or with respect and a willingness to treat us as equals.”
“My warriors will be ready and at your call,” Lysia rejoined and turned to stride down the steps at Hippolyta’s side.
As they reached the last step, Hippolyta replied, “Good. Now, go. There’s something I’ve got to do.”
Turning in the opposite direction, the Queen of the Amazons headed toward the barn, pausing as Hercules came out of the shadows of the doorway to meet her.
“I’ve decided to give you one chance to prove Hera’s words are lies, Hercules,” she said soberly. “Go to them and tell them to expect us. We’ll ride when the moon has traveled halfway across the sky.”
“Thank you, Hippolyta,” Hercules replied, equally sober. With a quick nod to her, a kind of salute, he turned and loped into the night.
By the time Hercules reached Gargarensia, the men had finished cleaning up the last meal of the day and were settling the children in their beds. One man spotted the demigod clattering across the narrow bridge and called out, “Hey, it’s Hercules. He’s back.”
Hearing the call, the men rushed out of their huts to greet the demigod, amazed at his appearance back in their village. Pithus, speaking for them all, called out, “Hercules, we thought you were dead.”
“There’s no time to explain,” Hercules replied as he ran up to them. “You need to get ready. The women are coming…”
Tiber stammered, “But…but I don’t have a weapon.”
And Hector added, “Neither do I. I’m just a farmer.”
“Hercules, I told you, we’re not warriors,” Pithus exclaimed, as frightened as the rest. “We don’t know how to fight them.”
Raising his hands, the demigod called over their panicked voices, “They are not coming to attack and kill you! They are coming to give you one chance to prove you are not monsters…to show them that you don’t hate them, but are willing to welcome them into your village.”
Low, uncertain voices greeted his words, the men afraid, unsure, and reluctant to take the chance of trusting that the women weren’t coming to kill them. Frustrated, Hercules demanded, “Would you rather go on as it has been? Would you rather they continued to slaughter you? Your sons? You have this one chance to stop the madness! Will you trust me…trust them enough to take it?”
Pithus took a deep breath as he looked around at his comrades. If this was a trap, well they would be killed. But…if there was a chance, any chance, to stop the killing, they had to take it. Straightening his shoulders, he nodded. “Tell us what we need to do,” he said, still afraid but resolute.
“All right, good!” Hercules smiled as he replied. Laying a hand on Pithus’ shoulder, he continued, “This is what you have to do…”
The women, made hopeful by Hercules’ words that perhaps the war with the men could be ended, made good use of the hours of the moon’s journey across the night sky. By the light of their fires, they prepared carefully for their own journey into Gargarensia, for their reunion with the men.
Finally, they led their horses from the barn and mounted. Hippolyta called out to them, “When we ride tonight, leave your masks behind! For this one night, we will show them our faces, that we are women, not beasts. With the strength that Hera has given us, and the strength that we have earned for ourselves we take this chance to make peace with the men! Be wary, and ready to fight, to kill…but keep your weapons sheathed until we see their intentions. Stay only until the sound of horn. The moment you hear it, we ride away so that we can determine how to proceed further. Now, ride!”
They were cheering her words, full of hope and anticipation, as they rode into the night.
Hector cried out as he ran into the camp from his place as lookout, “Hercules! They’re coming.”
Hercules nodded at the news. Turning to the other men who had gathered around him, he said, “All right, now, go. But remember to do everything exactly as I told you.”
The men scattered to their huts, breathless with fear, yet made brave by hope. If they saw the dawn, the new day would hold more promise than had the past months.
When the women rode into the village, it appeared deserted but for Hercules who stood alone. The Amazons pulled on their reins, coming to a stop in front of him.
“They are waiting to greet you, and welcome you, in their homes,” Hercules informed them with a smile that assured them there would be no violence. “Go to them.”
They looked to Hippolyta for guidance. Holding Hercules’ eyes, she directed, “Go, but be careful. There’s no telling what kind of trap Hercules has laid for us. And remember, you have only until the sound of the horn.”
The women dismounted, and with hands ready on their weapons, they ducked into the various huts and cottages of the villages, wondering what kind of greeting to expect. One after another was amazed by the welcome they found. Food had been prepared for them and laid out by a warm, welcoming fire. Flowers had been gathered to be offered to them. Men, who had the talent and skill, played the lute and sang for them. Others recited poems they had quickly crafted to express their welcome and hope for the future. Still others had bowls of warm water ready, and cloths, with which to wash their feet. All of the men were evidently nervous, but still they smiled tentatively, offering a welcome home. Some brought their sons forward, that they might also greet and welcome their mothers with sincere hugs and kisses of reconciliation and love.
Hippolyta heard the music and singing, and her brows rose in surprise. She heard the soft laughter, and before long, from some of the huts she heard the muted sighs that arose, the glad cries of men and women joining together in love. Hercules smiled knowingly as he watched her reactions. She had not dismounted but had waited tensely for an ambush that had never come. They’d waited in silence, but when barely an hour had passed, and she moved to lift her horn to her lips, he moved forward, a light hand on her arm, as he said, “Why are you in such a hurry to separate them? Why don’t you give them a chance just to talk? Are you afraid they’re going to find out they don’t have to hate each other?”
Hesitating, Hippolyta replied, “I’m protecting them from the lies those men will tell them if given half a chance.”
Shaking his head, Hercules countered, “The only lies that have been told have been told by Hera. And you believed every word, followed her every order blindly.”
"Not every word,” Hippolyta argued. “She ordered me to kill you.”
“Then why haven’t you?” he asked, keeping his voice steady though he dared to hope she was ready to fully defy Hera.
“Maybe I will,” she sniffed, but jerked, startled and immediately on the defence, ready to fight, as he deftly plucked her knife from its scabbard on her waist.
Hercules gazed at the blade for a moment, his gut twisting at the fleeting memory of a blade that had looked very much like this one, only that other blade had been stained crimson with Iolaus’ blood. Swallowing, he flipped it in his hand, holding the carved wooden hilt toward her. He looked up unflinchingly into her eyes as he said, “Then do it now.”
She took the knife and held it as she stared down at him. He was so close, standing with his arms at his side, his head up. With one swift slash, she could lay open his throat and watch his lifeblood drain away. Her eyes clouded with confusion and dropped away from his steady gaze. Biting her lip, shaking her head sharply, she thrust the blade back into the scabbard.
Hercules sighed and stepped back. Lifting a hand, waving it to encompass the village, he said, “These people belong together. The Gargarensians need your women.”
“My women don’t need them,” she muttered, still trying to resist, to deny that the horrors she’d directed at Hera’s will had been hideously wrong.
“Yes, they do,” he insisted. “And you know it. The men here don’t deserve to be hated or murdered for the sole crime of being men. They want to have peace with you and your women.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she snapped, dark eyes flashing as she lifted her head to confront him.
“You know I’m not lying,” he replied gently. “And I know you’re sorry for what has happened. That you wish it could be undone. But, it can’t. You can only go on from here. You can turn away from Hera; reject her attempts to control you. You can begin again and build a better, stronger community than what existed before.” He paused, studying her, trying to figure out what she was thinking, feeling. “Maybe, one day, you might even let a man love you.”
“Stop it. No man is going to make me want him,” she snarled. “I won’t be that weak.”
“It’s not weak to admit what you’re feeling,” Hercules countered. “It takes strength and courage. Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Hippolyta insisted as she straightened her shoulders, unconsciously reminding Hercules of Iolaus and his friend’s confident boast as they’d left the village earlier that day. His throat tightened, but he pushed those thoughts and memories aside as he focused on the Amazon Queen and his battle to free her from Hera’s domination.
“No?” he taunted, though his voice remained gentle. “Then, one day perhaps, you won’t be afraid to love a man as you love your women, your ‘tribe’. If you stop being afraid to trust that much…”
“I told you,” she cut in, though her throat was tight and her voice strained, “I’m not afraid of anything.”
He smiled at her bravado, but sadly, as he recognized the same tones he’d used to Iolaus when he’d protested that he’d never fall in love, never lose control that way. But Iolaus had wished that for him, had said that he deserved to know that kind of love. Swallowing, he offered the same wish now to Hippolyta, as he said, “Good, because you deserve to know that kind of love. You deserve to know the wonder and mystery and magic of it. So I hope one day that you will find a man who will love you as you deserve to be loved.”
She shook her head, again lifting her arm to blow the horn and call the women back to her side. But once more Hercules intervened. “Leave them some time…please. Come, walk with me and let them have this time together.”
Reluctantly, fighting back her own fear of losing control of her followers, Hippolyta lowered her horn. What if he was right? What if the men of Gargarensia and her women did need one another? As their leader, did she not need to know for sure? Sighing, she slipped from her saddle to stand before Hercules. “All right, I’ll give them until dawn’s first light.”
“Thank you,” he murmured. “So walk with me for a while? Maybe tell me what you hope for your tribe?”
She looked away, struggling within herself against his apparent well meant hopes for her and her people, his insistence that men could be trusted, those impressions warring with all that Hera had told her and demanded of her. Sighing, she acknowledged defeat and admitted to herself that she did trust this man, this apparently ‘wise beyond his years’ demigod, who could kill her as easily as he could look at her. But she felt no danger from him. Indeed, everything about him inspired confidence and trust. So she nodded and moved ahead, daring to walk into the night unprotected with a man she knew could destroy her if he chose to do so, to talk with him and tell him of her dreams for her people.
When the horn sounded just as the faint light of dawn began to paint the sky in the east, men and women woke throughout the village, and smiled shyly at one another. Men whispered their hopes that the women would return again, and soon. The women nodded, blinking back tears at the need to obey the command of their Queen, wishing they might stay and never have to leave again.
They left the huts and cottages together, the men standing in silence to watch as the women mounted wordlessly and rode away. As the thunder of hooves receded in the distance, they turned to one another, faces alight with happiness, and they laughed with the joy of life and the promise of love. Easy now, no longer afraid, they turned to find Hercules to tell him of what had transpired, eager to share news of the peace each one had individually attained with the woman who had entered his tent.
Hercules, however, stood alone by the river, not looking after the disappearing women or listening to the drumbeats of their horses’ hooves fading into the distance, but looking to the east, to the first streaks of the new dawn. The first dawn that Iolaus would not see. His chest was tight and ached with sorrow and he could barely swallow as he blinked hard against his burning eyes. Though he kept his jaw tight, he could not seem to stop the trembling of his lips.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, hoping somehow that Iolaus could still hear him, his words, his thoughts or maybe feel how much he was missed. “Gods, it hurts…you don’t know how much this hurts. Do you? Do you know I’d do anything to change places with you? I’m so sorry, for bringing you here, for not watching your back. I’m sorry, Iolaus…sorry you won’t ever be Ania’s husband, more sorry that I’ll ever have the words to say. Dammit, it shouldn’t have ended like this…Gods, how I miss you…”
Pithus saw Hercules standing alone and moved away from the other men to join the hero. The young demigod heard him coming and hastily swiped at his eyes, sniffing as he took a deep breath, and then another. For Iolaus, he had to hold it all together. His best friend would be ashamed of him if he failed to do what was right, failed to be strong when he was needed. Making this right, freeing these people from Hera’s terror was the only thing left Hercules could do to honour his friend, to be true to the memory of his own hero. So he straightened his shoulders and turned to meet Pithus as the man drew close. For Iolaus, he could and would do this. He would make things right here in Gargarensia. And then he would take Iolaus home…
“It’s been so long…” Pithus sighed, shaking his head at the horrors of the months past.
“Will you tell me now what happened, what divided you?” Hercules asked, his voice low and husky. Clearing his throat, he continued, trying hard to focus on Pithus’ issues and problems. Ania and his mother would need to know as much as he could tell them about what happened here, about why Iolaus had died. “Because, surely, there has not always been war between you and the Amazons.”
“No, there wasn’t,” Pithus allowed. “Years ago, when I was a child, the men and women lived separately but came together to mate. Over time, the Amazons gave up their village and moved here to live with us, though they kept up their warrior skills. Up until about ten months ago, we’d lived in harmony, though I must admit, we didn’t appreciate them or always show them the respect they wanted, and I think the women resented that. Then, one night, a man killed his wife. He was a brute, prone to violence, especially when he was drunk as he was that night. It was terrible.”
Hercules looked away, nodding as he recalled Hippolyta’s charge the day before that he was incapable of caring that men could so easily murder those they were avowed to love. “What happened to him?”
“We drove him from the village, told him he was no longer welcome here,” Pithus replied. “The women were angry and would have rather he’d been executed for what he’d done. And, I think, some were nervous, wondering if he was still around somewhere, still a threat. But they didn’t leave for good until another man threatened his wife with a cleaver.” Pithus sighed as he looked away. “The next morning, when we awoke, they and our daughters were gone to the old, abandoned Amazon village in the forest.” Turning back to Hercules, Pithus said quietly, “The first men we found murdered in the forest were the man who killed his wife, and the other who had threatened his mate with the knife.”
“And, after that, you decided to fight them,” Hercules surmised, looking away toward the eastern horizon.
“We were afraid,” Pithus muttered in their defence. “The strongest of us, the best warriors, went out into the forest to confront them, to talk, not to kill unless they had to…but the men were all slaughtered. None of us, not even our warriors had trained as they had. None of us had the skills they’d honed. The rest of us, well, we knew we had no chance of defeating them ourselves. And we were afraid they would come and murder us all one day. That’s why I went to you for help.”
Shaking his head, Hercules bit his lip. Sighing, he said, “It was all perfect for Hera to move in with her lies, to convince the women you couldn’t be trusted.” Turning to Pithus, he said soberly, “We’ve won a new beginning, my friend. But you and your men need to remember to respect these women, to not take them for granted.”
“We’ve learned our lesson, Hercules,” Pithus assured the demigod. “Believe me! We’re grateful that you’ve given us the chance. But…” the man hesitated; he’d seen the dark sorrow in Hercules’ eyes, the pain in the lines of the young man’s face, but Pithus hoped he was wrong in what he feared had happened, so he forged on, “what happened to your friend, Iolaus? Is he being held as a hostage in the Amazon village?”
Hercules’ jaw tightened as he shook his head and turned away. “No,” he sighed, his voice but a whisper. “Iolaus…they killed him.”
Pithus’ eyes clouded with regret and not a little shame to have brought Hercules and his friend into such deadly danger, and for not having been honest with them from the beginning. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, meaning it, sincerely sorry that the brave man he’d known but for a short time but who had impressed him as being somehow joyful and always full of laughter was gone.
“So am I,” Hercules replied starkly. “Believe me, so am I.”
The other men, still excited by the success they’d enjoyed during the night crowded around. Hector spoke for them all when he called out, “Hercules, you’ve given our village life again. We owe everything to you.”
Tiber echoed his friend’s words as he expressed his own gratitude. “Thank you, Hercules. Things are going be so much better, now the women are coming back.”
Looking again toward the horizon, Hercules cautioned, “That’s if the women come back.”
One young man looked astonished by the demigod’s words as he protested, “Whaddya mean? Of course they’re gonna come back. I mean, what woman wouldn’t?”
Tiber agreed as he asserted, “Yeah, they’ll be back, and think how much better it’ll be. Our clothes will be mended. We’ll eat better.”
“It’ll be back to the way it should be!” Hector sighed happily.
Angry, appalled that these men did not seem to understand how fragile the peace with the women truly was, Hercules shouted at them in frustration, “What’s wrong with you? Those attitudes are exactly what got you into all this trouble in the first place. The women aren’t the ones who have to work around here to make things right. It’s you men-all of you!”
“Hercules is right,” Pithus joined in. “Things went the way they did last night because we talked to them. We listened to them and showed them that we respected them.”
“That’s right, you did,” Hercules agreed. “If you want to keep Gargarensia from being torn apart again, it’s the way things must be in the future. Do you understand?”
The men looked at one another, and then they nodded. “Yeah,” they chorused, sobered by how close they’d come to ruining all that had been achieved. “We understand.”
The women chatted happily as they dismounted, tired but filled with exuberance. Hippolyta heard snatches of their words as she left them and mounted the steps to her own domicile. She smiled at the jubilation in their voices, glad that she’d taken the risk that had evidently had such wonderful results.
“Hector and I talked for hours,” she heard one say, and then Ilea’s voice rang out, excited, “Tiber and I did, too. You know? He even sang me a song.” Laughter chimed at the sound of amazed wonder her voice. And then Meg said, “You should have seen my son, Franco! He’s such a beautiful boy. I can’t wait to see him again, the both of them. And, what about you, Lysia? Did you get to know the man you met?”
Hippolyta didn’t hear the response as she strode across the hall toward the shrine she’d built to Hera. Not one to shirk her duties to her goddess, still in part grateful for the strength and confidence they had acquired under Hera’s rule, the Queen planned to tell the Queen of the Gods that the war with the men was over.
Kneeling before the shrine, she lit the tapers and then folded her hands, bowing her head as she called out to the goddess, “Hera?”
Colours swirled in the mirror, and the distorted visage of the goddess appeared as Hera asked, toying with her, as the goddess was well aware of what had transpired, “You returned successful?”
Dutifully, Hippolyta nodded, then raised her face to her goddess’ image, as she answered “Yes, Hera.”
Pressing for the details, the goddess demanded, her fury leashed for the moment, “Did the attack go as planned?”
The Queen of the Amazons hesitated, and then drew a steadying breath. “Hera, we owe you for everything that we have,” she began, “our strength, our freedom. You’ve brought us such a long way, and we’re grateful but…maybe we’ve gone too far. Maybe all men aren’t the enemy.”
“I ordered you to kill him!” Hera charged, furious that Hippolyta had failed to kill Hercules as she’d been ordered.
“But Hercules doesn’t deserve to die,” Hippolyta protested. “He’s different. He respects us. He has helped us reach a state of peace with the men of Gargarensia!”
“Peace?” Hera snorted, then continued derisively, “You poor child. Hercules only pretended to respect you. Everything he did, everything he said was only to prevent you from sounding the horn. Don’t you see? He tricked you!”
“No, that’s not true,” Hippolyta countered. “He wanted nothing of me personally! He was only concerned for us, that we all find some measure of happiness…”
“Do you really think you can trust Hercules?” Hera demanded, her voice dripping with condemnation. “He’s the son of Zeus. Why, they probably planned all this together. And while he confusing you with his pretty words, his men were wrapping their lies around your women. You’ve lost control of them!”
“No!” Hippolyta protested, stung by the anger and the challenge to her leadership.
“Yes!” Hera hissed back. “Now you feel betrayed, as I felt. He was sent to destroy you, and he succeeded!”
“No, you’re wrong,” Hippolyta cut back. “I know you’re wrong. He said that…”
“What? Did he say he loved you?” Hera taunted. “That he needed you? Did he tell you there was no one in the world quite like you? You must act now, before everything is gone. Assemble your troops and destroy him. Destroy all of them! Ride into Gargarensia and let no man stand alive! It’s the only hope of saving what you’ve worked for-what we’ve worked for.”
“No, Hera,” Hippolyta refused the command, her tone hardening as she straightened, sure of her own assessment of the facts. She would not let anyone control her, not even a goddess. “Hercules told me no lies; he made no false promises. I believe his sincerity and I believe the men of Gargarensia want peace between us. There’ll be no more attacks.”
“Obey me,” Hera commanded, her voice rising in fury. “I’m warning you.”
“We’ve obeyed you for long enough,” Hippolyta spat back as she rose from her knees and stepped back from the shrine. “For far too long, we’ve been controlled by your hate, by the blackness in your heart.”
Maddened by Hippolyta’s refusal, blind with her rage, Hera shrieked, “Hercules has to die. The Gargarensians have to die. I command you!”
"No!” Hippolyta shouted back, “There’ll be no more commands!”
Astounded that a mere mortal would dare refuse her command, the wildly insane and cruel laughter of the Queen of the Gods filled the hall as the glass of the mirror shattered.
Defensively, Hippolyta raised her arms to protect her face from the flying shards, and was unaware of the swirl of power that came at her until she felt the rush of wind around her…and then it was too late. Hera moved into Hippolyta’s body, merging with her and overcoming her spirit and her will, until Hera’s laughter rang from Hippolyta’s lips, and the glow of the peacock shimmered in her eyes.
The now possessed woman then wheeled around and strode back to the portal, back into the light of the new day. She paused there for a moment, marshalling her thoughts, watching narrowly as Lysia approached.
“The women wanted me to thank you,” Lysia said with a broad smile to the woman she thought was her Queen.
“Thank me?” Hera repeated, her tone ironic.
“Yeah. Look at them,” Lysia replied as she turned and waved at her comrades. “I’ve never seen them so happy. And to tell you the truth, I’m feeling the same way.”
Her lips curled in humourless sarcasm as Hera drawled, “That’s nice.”
Oblivious to the hints of danger, thinking it was Hippolyta who stood above her on the steps, her tone eager, Lysia continued, “We want to know when we can go back…when we can see the men again?”
“How about-right now?” Hera offered sweetly, and then her tone and visage changed to mirror her internal insane rage, as she called, “Mount up! Full battle gear! Battle arms! We attack Gargarensia again. This time no man is to be left alive!”
Lysia paled with shock and disbelief as she faltered, “But, Hippolyta, wasn’t what happened last night…”
Hera cut her off as she commanded harshly, the threat now clear in her voice, “You’ll obey my orders! Or have you turned against me?”
Stepping back from the fury that she felt as if it were a physical force, Lysia shook her head in astonishment. But her training and her loyalty overcame her confusion, as she replied, “No, my Queen-never. Never.” Turning to the gathering of astonished women, Lysia’s voice rose in command as she shouted, “We ride immediately! This time we fight! Move!”
Hercules had just taken leave of the villagers, explaining that he was heading back to the Amazon’s village to reinforce the desire of the men for peace. He’d barely crossed the bridge over the narrow river when he heard the pounding of hooves drawing closer. The men behind him heard the approaching horses as well, and one shouted, “They’re coming back!” as they all scrambled to retrieve bouquets of flowers and to straighten their morning dishevelment in hopeful anticipation.
But, looking across the bar of sand that bordered the river, seeing the Amazons come at full gallop, Hercules could see they were again wearing the masks of the beasts, and his heart fell. This was no reunion. This was an all out attack!
“NO!” he shouted, moving forward though he knew that even with his strength he could not hope to stop the stampeding horses before they rode into the village to kill. But, just as the mounted women reached the edge of the river, a wall of flames sprang from the water, dividing them from the village beyond. Horses plunged and reared in panic as they skidded to a halt on the sand.
“ENOUGH!” Artemis commanded, as she appeared, larger than any mortal, towering over her Amazons. “The war is OVER!”
“NO!” Hera screamed back, drawing her sword.
“Yes,” the Huntress returned, her hands on her hips, though only Artemis knew she was addressing Hera and not the Queen of the Amazons. “You’ve gone too far. You have no right to lead these women to a war they no longer want. It’s finished.”
“They’ll fight if I command them to fight,” Hera yelled back.
“Will they?” Artemis challenged. “Well, let’s see if that’s true.” Raising her voice, the goddess called out to her Amazons, “Any of you who wish this war to end now, dismount and walk across the river to the village. The flames will not harm you if you pass in peace.”
For a moment, the women hesitated, looking from their Queen to the Goddess of the Hunt. But then they looked through the flames at the men, who stood there with flowers in their hands, afraid yet resolute, ready to face whatever might happen next.
Meg was the first to dismount and walk through the flames. But the others, seeing her pass unharmed, also dismounted, their faces turned away from their Queen as they, too, moved through the fire to the men and the village beyond. They’d had enough of war. It was time to end it.
Only Lysia remained beside her Queen, but her shoulders were slumped in defeat. When Hera turned to her, screaming at her to kill Hercules, the only man on their side of the fiery river, Lysia shook her head, and then she dismounted. “No, my Queen…I’ve killed enough, too many. No.” Regretfully, feeling the weight of disloyalty, Lysia turned to stride through the flames, leaving the form of Hippolyta alone with Hercules.
Hera snarled as she leapt from the back of her horse, her sword in hand, “Fine, I’ll kill him myself! I’ll kill them all!”
“It’s over,” Artemis said again, and then vanished, the flames dying as she departed.
Confused, appalled, Hercules shouted at her, “Hippolyta! What’s going on? What are you doing?”
“I’m saving my women,” she raged.
Waving back toward the village, the demigod protested, “But they don’t need to be saved. Look at them! Artemis is right. Your war against these men is over.”
“The war against men is never over, Hercules,” Hera yelled back, cutting the air with her sword to lend emphasis to her words.
“With these men it is,” Hercules insisted. “You’ve won. You’ve got their respect. They’re ready to treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”
“And why should we believe your lies?” Hera demanded.
Exasperated, Hercules replied, “They’re not lies. Look at them! Those men have welcomed your women with respect…and with love!”
“Your father made promises on his love,” Hera sneered. “They didn’t last a day.”
And this time, Hercules heard the echo of Hera’s voice in Hippolyta’s words, and he grew cold with his realization of the terrible truth. This wasn’t Hippolyta who was standing there, forcing a war. “Hera,” he breathed, appalled and wondering if Hippolyta still survived, her spirit held captive within her body by Hera’s malicious will.
“That’s right, Hercules,” Hera laughed with cold cruelty. “You may have stolen Hippolyta’s will and confused her mind with your words, but I-I-control her body. I’m going to enjoy killing you. You and every one of these men.”
Hera lunged at him with her sword, but he stepped aside, twisting away from the blade and grabbing at her wrist, squeezing until her fingers loosened and the deadly weapon dropped to the sand at their feet. He kicked it away, and then released her, but she whirled and kicked him hard in the gut, driving him back, as she whirled again, this time kicking him in the head. “I’ll kill you,” she vowed.
Hercules backed up, holding her eyes with his own. And then he turned and ran toward the cover of the forest. Maddened, Hera grabbed the reins of her horse and swung back into the saddle, kicking the animal into motion as she shouted after him, “Hercules! There’s nowhere to run, Hercules!”
Urging her mount into a gallop, she followed him into the shadows of the forest.
“Why is he running?” Meg asked, bewildered by all that was happening, none of them realizing that it was Hera in Hippolyta’s body, too far away to have heard Hercules’ appalled whisper of recognition.
“He’s trying to save us,” Pithus sighed.
Franco, looking up at his parents and then back to the forest asked, “But who’s gonna save Hercules?”
Hercules raced through the forest until he judged that he was far enough away from the village to stop and face Hera without risking the lives of others in their battle. As he turned and rested one hand against a tree, puffing to regain his breath, he was startled by Zeus’ appearance at his side.
“If I were you, I’d keep on running,” his father advised wryly.
“And let Hera control those women?” Hercules muttered, his eyes on the path. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh. So, now they’re yours,” Zeus challenged, thinking his son a fool to risk Hera’s wrath.
“No, they’re not anybody’s,” Hercules snapped back, cutting his father a sharp glance as he continued fiercely, “They’re free to make up their own minds on what they want to do. If they choose to be with those men, I’m not going to let Hera stop them.”
Shaking his head, Zeus counselled, “Son, it’s best just to get out of her way, and head back when it’s over. It really works for me.”
“Yeah?” Hercules asked bleakly. Swallowing, he shook his head. “Well, it doesn’t work for me. I told you last night…I owe this to Iolaus if not to the people back there. I won’t let her win.”
Zeus bit his lip as he studied his son. Shaking his head, he muttered, “Good luck,” and then vanished.
Hera shouted through the trees from somewhere back along the path, “Don’t bother hiding, Hercules! I’ll hunt you till your head’s in my hands.”
“I’m not hiding, Hera,” he called back, straightening to meet her, his head up and jaw tight as he watched her come into view.
She laughed as she saw him standing there, tall and strong, waiting for her. Pitiful. He had no hope against her power. She drew her lance from its sheath as she slid from the back of her mount and strode towards him. “You think you’re ready for me. Let’s see what kind of legend you really are,” she challenged as she drove the lance toward him.
But he caught it by the shaft, and pulled it away from her, snapping it in half. “I won’t fight you,” he rasped as he dropped the wooden pieces to the ground.
“Come on, Hercules. I know you want to kill me,” she sneered. “This is your big chance.”
“No. It’s all over, Hera,” he said, defiant as he faced her down. “Those women aren’t yours anymore. Hippolyta and all of them-they belong to themselves.”
“They belong to me,” Hera raged, as she lashed out at him, brutally kicking him, lending her strength to Hippolyta’s body and skill.
Hercules blocked her aggressive blows as best he could, but his refusal to fight cost him. He was driven to the ground again and again, his face bruised and bleeding from her abuse. His anger surged and he wanted so badly to fight back, wanted to hurt Hera as she’d hurt him in taking Iolaus’ life. But he knew he couldn’t really hurt Hera…the goddess would simply vacate the body she’d hijacked whenever it suited her. He would only injure Hippolyta who was an innocent victim, caught between them, her body being used against her will.
At one point, as Hera kept coming at him, Hercules cried out, “Hippolyta! You’re too strong to be conquered. Listen to me! Fight her-drive her out!”
But Hera just sneered at him, confident of her power over the mortal whose body she controlled, “It won’t work, Hercules. She can’t fight this battle. Only you can!” Hera lunged at him again, opening a cut on his face with the sharp edge of her boot, driving him back before her fury.
“Hippolyta, please don’t let her do this!” Hercules called out again, but he feared it was hopeless.
“Save your breath to scream, Hercules,” Hera snarled, moving in again, relentless in her hatred. “You know? For the Champion of Men, you are a big disappointment.”
Suddenly, from the shadows beside the path, Pithus leapt out and grabbed Hera from behind, desperate to help Hercules, to not let the hero face this threat alone. Appalled, knowing that Pithus had no idea that he was challenging the Queen of the Gods and not simply the Queen of the Amazons, Hercules cried out, "No, Pithus!”
But Hera was already in motion, flinging Pithus over her back and then grabbing him by the front of his shirt to haul him up and shove him hard against a tree. Ruthlessly, she drew out her dagger and held it to his throat.
“No, Hera!” Hercules shouted in desperation. “He doesn’t have to die.”
Hera threw him a mocking look over her shoulder as she snarled, “You don’t get it, do you? They all have to die.” Then she turned back to Pithus and without a word, she slashed at his throat.
The hapless man grabbed at the ugly, mortal, wound as blood splashed free in a flood of crimson spurts, gasping in shock and the horrible awareness that he was dying, as Hercules screamed out, "Noooo!"
Stepping back from her victim, letting him slide to the ground, Hera laughed as she again turned to face Hercules, taunting him, “What are you waiting for? Kill me. You know you want to.”
Horrified, the demigod looked from the dead man to Hera as he shook his head. “No,” he gasped. “You can’t make me hurt her.”
Having no other option, he turned and ran through the forest to draw her further away from the village as he struggled with what to do to stop her, and wondered why she hadn’t yet killed him. If he didn’t fight, she would eventually kill him, wouldn’t she? And then she might well return to the village to wreak more havoc. But if he fought, it wouldn’t be Hera he injured and destroyed, but Hippolyta-and she was only an innocent victim of Hera’s fury. Hercules could not bring himself to do harm to her.
But then, he remembered Zeus’ rule…and dared hope he might yet win.
So, with Hera’s maniacal laughter ringing in his ears, he ran. Until the path abruptly ended, and he found himself on the edge of a broken bridge that had once spanned a waterfall and steep, deep, rocky chasm to the river below, and there was nowhere left to run. He slid to a halt and turned to face her, ready for their final confrontation.
Following him out of the forest, standing but a few steps away, Hera sneered triumphantly, “Seems you have no choice, now. It’s either fight-or die.”
Shaking his head, Hercules reiterated his position on this senseless, fruitless, battle. “I told you, I won’t hurt her.” All he had left, his only hope, was his memory of Zeus’ rule forbidding Hera to kill him directly. If he continued to refuse to fight, maybe, just maybe, she would give up and he would win this round.
“I won’t allow both of you to live,” she advised him coldly, as if she had read his mind.
Swallowing, he knew he’d been right. She hadn’t killed him so far because of the prohibition against killing any god and, as Zeus had wryly advised him, in this matter he qualified as a god. But his hopes dissipated as he stared into the madness that raged in her eyes and understood her words. If he didn’t die, she’d destroy Hippolyta.
“Then kill me,” he offered finally, his arms falling to his side as he stood waiting for the thrust of her blade.
“What?” she gasped, astonished that he’d offer his own life in sacrifice to spare the Amazon Queen.
“If one of us has to die,” he asserted, “it’s going to be me.”
“Who would’ve thought,” Hera chuckled, misunderstanding, “that of all things, it would be love that kills the great Hercules?”
But Hercules shook his head. “I don’t love her, not the way you mean. But I respect her. And she doesn’t deserve to die to salve your hatred of me. She’s an innocent victim of your insane jealousy. I don’t want to live with torment of her blood on my conscious. I won’t choose my life over hers.”
“No?” Hera replied, a hint of speculation in her voice and an ugly gleam in her eye. “Well, too bad, Hercules! You’ll have to live with it!”
Laughing, Hera pushed past him before he understood what she intended, and Hera flung Hippolyta’s body out into the chasm. The poor woman, freed now from the hideous domination she could neither withstand nor fight, screamed with bitter anger and desperate denial of the death that was rushing towards her as she plunged to the river below.
"No!” Hercules cried out in horror as he watched Hippolyta fall, helpless to save her. “Nooooooo!”
His face taut with grief, Hercules carried Hippolyta’s body into the village common and laid her gently upon the earth at the feet of her subjects and the men they had chosen to love.
The villagers and Amazons gathered around, stunned and horrified, overwhelmed with grief. Confused, Franco looked back at the forest and then up at Hercules, as he asked, his voice hollow with fear, “Where’s my Dad? What’s happened to him?”
Swallowing, the demigod laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder as he replied gently, “Your father was a good and very brave man, Franco.”
Reading the truth in Hercules eyes, not wanting to know the inevitability of death, not yet, not for those he loved, the boy turned away, seeking solace in his mother’s arms as he cried, “But I want him back! I want him to be here!”
“Oh, Franco,” Meg tried to soothe the bereft child, her voice cracking as she thought about the good man she had just regained only to lose him forever. “Sometimes, we lose the people we love, and there’s nothing we can do to bring them back.”
As he watched their grief, and felt again the twist of his own loss in his heart, Hercules shook his head. It was too much. It was unacceptable. There had to be a way to make this right. And suddenly, one desperate hope occurred to him…one chance, one possibility, if he could make it work.
“Don’t be so sure,” he muttered in response to Meg’s words as he turned and pushed his way through the ring of villagers around them. His face set with determination, he strode back to the empty village of the Amazons. So intent was he upon his mission, he was unaware of having started to run in his haste to rectify the damage done.
Once there, he raced up the steps back into the great hall, and through it to the empty, useless shrine. His eyes raked his surroundings until he found what he sought and bent to lift the thick, white candle in his hands. This was the one Hippolyta had used…was it only yesterday?
“Zeus!” he shouted. “Zeus! Show yourself!”
“Hercules, it’s not going to work. What’s past is past. Let it go. What you’re thinking about is impossible,” his father sighed as he appeared.
“DO IT!” Hercules demanded.
“No,” his father replied wearily, turning aside. “It’s not going to change things. This candle can only show your past. It’s not going take you back there. That’s not the way it works.”
“But you could make it work that way,” Hercules pressed, his tone angry and demanding. “You do have the power.”
“Yes, I have,” the King of the Gods snapped, rounding on his son. “But that is not the problem. Son, I love you. And, I understand your pain. But I can’t just go around reversing time, and changing the course of events! If you only knew how complicated it gets, with the stars, the planets and all. Not to mention, the other gods. I mean, they-they would be furious at such a show of unnecessary power if I started messing around with the order of things like that. Son, you can’t imagine the headaches this would cause.”
“No, you don’t understand how important this is,” Hercules insisted. “Three lives-three good, innocent people have died because of Hera’s insane jealousy.”
“Hercules is right,” Artemis asserted as she flashed into view. “Hera had no right to toy with my Amazons, no right to interfere! There must be an accounting. Punishment is warranted.”
Zeus shook his head, but Hercules would not give up. “I demand reparation for the village of Gargarensia, for Artemis and for myself. I demand the restoration of the lives of Pithus, Hippolyta and Iolaus. If that requires the anger of the gods, let them know it was Hera’s doing, her responsibility for all that has occurred.”
Hera flashed into view then, laughing at the outrageous request. “Hercules, who do you think you are? Who cares a whit for the lives of a few worthless mortals? Don’t be ridiculous!”
“I care,” Artemis countered, stepping forward. Turning to her father, she said fiercely, “Hera has abused her power and invaded my territory. She infringed upon my rights with the Amazons and cost me the life of this tribe’s Queen, not to mention one of my best hunters. I demand reparation. I demand Hippolyta’s life and Iolaus’ life back.”
“I care,” Hercules snapped. “I care about a village that was torn asunder, its inhabitants driven to kill one another all to assuage your crazy jealousy. I demand reparation for them and myself. I demand the lives of Pithus and Iolaus!”
Haughty, Hera sniffed and began to turn away, unmoved and uncaring of this ridiculous display of emotion. Zeus would never go so far as to turn back time, not even for the sake of his own rules or the love of his bastard son. But she was stayed by Zeus’ quiet but stern voice. “And I care, for the violation to the rules I have set for our behaviour, for the disrespect you have shown my daughter, and for the pain you have caused my son.”
“Do you think I care for his pain?” Hera raged. “I revel in it!” Leaning in toward Zeus, she hissed tauntingly, “And there isn’t a thing you can do about it.”
Zeus’ face lost all expression, turning stony with rage. “Hera!” he bellowed, “You push me too far!”
Startled, she took a step back from his rage, but he continued to lash at her in his fury, as he cried, “Let all the gods know how displeased I am with you! You can suffer their fury! In retribution for your breach of the rules, in recognition of Artemis’ and Hercules’ demand for just retribution, I allow their requests! It is MY judgment that time must be turned back to the point at which Artemis first drew my attention to your inappropriate interference in her domain, and when it is once again set in motion, Artemis will be in full command of her Amazons…and you will be in disgrace on Olympus!”
And with that, Zeus grabbed the candle from Hercules’ hand, looked at the wick, which burst into spontaneous flame, and he held the candle up toward his wife as he took a breath and blew across the flickering light between them as Hera screeched in fury, “I swear I’ll have satisfaction! This is not over!”
Hercules felt a rush of wind and was made dizzy by the spiralling images as he was pulled back through time. He felt eternity brush by in a heartbeat, and he gasped, blinking, to find himself seated once again at Iolaus’ table, Ania’s stew in a bowl before him. He heard Ania’s voice as she said, “Hercules, I made extra for you. I hope you’re hungry.”
Afraid for a moment, afraid to hope that it was real, Hercules sat as if stunned, but he heard Iolaus ask him, concern rich in his best friend’s voice, “Herc? Are you all right?”
Looking up then, his mouth slightly agape, he felt tears threaten as he gazed into Iolaus’ candid blue eyes. Unable to stop himself, Hercules lunged to feet as he reached across the table to grip the shoulders of his best friend. He was alive! Iolaus was alive!
“Gods, Iolaus, it’s so damned good to see you,” he cried, his voice hoarse with the tumultuous emotions that surged from his heart to fill his chest and throat. Profound relief and gratitude…and inexpressible jubilation!
Startled by the unusually emotional outburst, Iolaus patted his friend’s arms as he stammered, “It’s good to see you, too, Hercules. Listen,” he continued with a slow, warm smile that lit the young demigod’s life with boundless joy, “if you don’t wanna eat Ania’s stew, it’s okay.”
Seeing the confusion in his best friend’s eyes, conscious that Iolaus could not possibly understand what had just happened and that both Alcmene and Ania were staring at him as if he’d taken leave of his senses, Hercules released his grip on his friend and sat back. But he could feel no embarrassment for his actions or words. It was all he could do not to weep with relief and joy.
“Don’t you like the stew, Hercules?” Ania asked, hesitating, unsure, wanting so badly to please her beloved’s best friend.
“What? Oh,” Hercules stuttered as he looked with some confusion at the stew. But he picked up his spoon and filled it, exclaiming as he swallowed, “It’s great! The best I’ve ever tasted! Iolaus…I know you two are going to have a long and happy life together.”
And it was great, though he’d not tasted a thing. Everything was great. He was enraptured with the reality of Iolaus, living and breathing, alive and happy, across the table. Infinitely relieved to know that his friend would indeed live to marry and live happily ever after.
“Well, thank you, Hercules,” Iolaus replied, but look in his eyes remained confused. Something was very odd about his friend’s behaviour. Hercules looked as if he was almost hysterically happy…and Iolaus knew it couldn’t be the stew.
But, before he could ask what had gotten into his best friend, Ania started and gasped, her hand rising to her breast in startled alarm.
“What is it?” Iolaus demanded, turning toward the window to see what had frightened her.
“I thought I saw a man…” she stammered.
But Hercules swiftly rose to his feet, laying a calming hand on her shoulder as he quickly moved past her to the door. “It’s all right. Really! It’s only Pithus. I’ll go see what he wants.”
The demigod reached and pushed open the door, slipping outside before Pithus could knock, startling the other man.
“It’s all right, Pithus,” Hercules said quickly to reassure him. “It’s me, Hercules.”
“How do you know my name?” the amazed man gasped.
Putting his arm around Pithus’ shoulders and leading him away from the door, Hercules replied in a friendly, even familiar manner, “It’s too long a story. But I know why you’re here, and I know how to help you.”
Pithus sagged with relief as he replied hopefully, “Then you’ll come back with me? You’ll come back to Gargarensia?”
The demigod shook his head as he replied, “You don’t need me. You can solve your problem, yourselves. Look, the next time your enemy attacks, don’t treat them as the enemy. Instead of fearing them, respect them. I mean, in your hearts, you know who they are, so talk to them. Just…give them what they…”
Alarmed, Pithus cut in, his voice edged with panic, “But we can’t do it on our own. You’ve gotta come back with me!”
“I can’t, Pithus,” Hercules replied with sober seriousness. “If I go back with you, people will die-good people.”
Confused, not understanding, still frightened, Pithus demanded anxiously, “But, then, how do we…?” But his words faltered as he stared up at the demigod and shook his head helplessly.
Hercules patted the man on the shoulder as he replied with supreme confidence, “Just do as I told you. Treat them with respect, always…and welcome them with love in your hearts. Make your enemy your friend. You know who they are, so talk to them. Welcome them into your homes…share yourselves, and find out who they are. Even if you don’t know how, try. If you make an effort, it’ll change everything. But you have to take the first step. More than anything else, open yourselves up to them. Show them what matters to you, what you care about. Believe me-it’ll put an end to all this hatred. And, uh,” Hercules concluded with a smile, “it wouldn’t hurt if you gave them flowers and washed their feet every once in a while, either.”
“Are you sure it’s going to work?” Pithus demanded, staggered by the advice, his voice still uncertain, and his expression anxious.
“I know it’ll work,” Hercules assured him. “It will be all right. I promise you.”
Iolaus had come to the door and was listening with unhidden curiosity to the advice Hercules gave to the stranger, before gently pushing him along on his way, back to wherever he’d come from. “What was that all about?” he asked as Hercules turned back toward him.
“Oh, just an old friend,” Hercules replied lightly as he laid an arm around his friend’s shoulders and guided Iolaus back into the cottage. “He needed my help.”
“It sounded like he needed more than advice…” Iolaus probed, unsatisfied. “C’mon, Herc, level with me. What was that about? Hey, if we went with him to help sort out the problems, it could be our last great adventure together. Gargarensia is only a couple of days away.”
Hercules laughed easily. “Oh, I’ll tell you about it one day, but right now, the ladies are waiting with dinner,” he said as they came back into the room. Leaning in toward Iolaus, he added, merriment twinkling in his eyes, “And you’re getting married this week, my friend. That’s adventure enough for all of us. Now get back over there to that beautiful woman of yours."
Laughing, Iolaus gave in and moved across the room to Ania who looked a little lost, standing by the table and wondering what was going on. He took her into his arms and hugged her as he whispered that everything was all right.
Alcmene had moved to join Hercules by the door, and she murmured as they both watched the young lovers, “Those two belong together, don’t they?”
“They sure do,” Hercules agreed wholeheartedly as he hugged his mother.
“What about you, Hercules?” she asked, looking up at him. “Do you think there’s a woman out there who can make you that happy?”
“Yeah,” Hercules sighed with a quiet smile. Though he couldn’t picture her face, he just suddenly knew that there was a brave, strong, beautiful woman in his future, a woman he’d love with his whole heart and soul. “She’s out there, somewhere. And, someday, we’ll find each other.”
He gave his mother another quick hug, then steered her back to the table and the dinner that was awaiting them…and their friends, who had turned toward them, smiling brightly with the promise of their love and friendship.
The week passed in a blur of wedding preparations. Hercules tried to distract Iolaus by taking him hunting for the meal to follow the vows, but Iolaus was too wired to track anything. So, the demigod hauled his friend to their favourite fishing hole, without any better results.
“Gods, Hercules, what am I doing?” Iolaus babbled, oblivious to the fishing line tugging in his hands. “I’m not good enough for her! How will I support her…and kids? Oh, gods, how will I ever manage to feed a family?”
Taking the fishing line from his friend’s hands and hauling in the good-sized trout, Hercules chuckled as he shook his head. Laying the fish on the grass beside them, he turned to Iolaus, who was still babbling about whether his cottage was big enough, or if Ania would love him forever or realize she’d made a mistake when she woke up the day after the wedding. The demigod gripped his friend’s shoulders, shaking him a little to get his attention.
“What?” Iolaus demanded, a slightly dazed look in his eyes once he’d finally focused on Hercules.
“Listen to me, all right?” Hercules demanded and waited to be sure Iolaus was paying attention.
“Sure, Herc, I’m listening,” Iolaus replied, his focus getting better as he looked up at Hercules attentively.
“First, Ania loves you and she won’t stop loving you,” Hercules said. When Iolaus looked as if he was about to protest the likelihood of that, the demigod shook his head and gave his friend a stern look, so Iolaus settled down and continued to listen. “Second, you are a hardworking farmer and you’ll make more than enough to feed and care for your family. Add to that, you can hunt both for your own table and to sell to others, and hey, if you really have to, you can likely get some work with old Klangitus, the ‘smith in town. He’s slowing down some and could probably really use the help. You showed a real potential for that kind of work at the Academy. And, finally, if you need to expand the cottage, I’ll help you. Okay?”
Iolaus swallowed and took a deep breath. “You really think she’ll love me forever?” he asked, wishing with all his heart that he could believe it.
“Yes, I do,” Hercules affirmed with a smile. “The two of you were meant for one another and you’re going to have a long and happy life together, with at least a dozen children. You’ll make a fine husband, Iolaus, and a wonderful father. So, stop worrying!”
Nodding, Iolaus blew out a long breath. “I was panicking, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, you were, but it’s normal,” the demigod chuckled as he knelt to wrap the fish in leaves to protect it. Looking up at Iolaus, he continued, “But you’ll be okay. Everything is going to work out just fine.”
Sighing, Iolaus smiled at his best friend. “I’m really glad you’re here, Herc. Thanks for coming home.”
Standing, Hercules pulled Iolaus into a hug as he murmured, his voice suddenly hoarse with emotion, “I told you…nothing was going to make me miss your wedding!”
Hercules had meant to tell Iolaus about Pithus and all that had happened, but somehow the right time never seemed to come. The last thing he wanted to do was distract Iolaus or worry him with thoughts that he’d died and had only been restored to life by Zeus’ decision. The guy was wound up enough by his coming marriage and his worries about being a good husband, a responsible and loving father and an effective provider. To have told Iolaus that he’d died before he could be married wouldn’t have helped to settle him down.
But finally the big day came, dawning clear with just enough of a breeze to cool the heat of the sun. The whole village turned out, or at least it seemed so, the good-humoured crowd was so large. When he gazed down at the gathering throng from the vantage point on the hill by Iolaus’ cottage, Hercules grinned with private amusement, figuring that most of the men had come to assure themselves that the competition Iolaus represented for the hearts of the village damsels was over. And the women had turned up with the hope that maybe the wedding would fall through at the last moment! Chuckling to himself for his whimsical notions, Hercules shook his head, smiling as he acknowledged to himself that people had come because they genuinely liked Iolaus and Ania, and wanted to see them so happy and together.
And the demigod was especially pleased to see that their friend, Jason, the King of Corinth, had arrived to honour Iolaus on this most special of days.
As the hour drew near, Hercules walked with his friend to the meadow behind his mother’s house, the location chosen for the exchange of marriage vows. Iolaus was dressed simply in a new blue shirt that matched the vibrant colour of his eyes, and a new pair of black leather pants, his new clothing Alcmene’s gift to him in honour of his marriage. His boots were worn but clean and well shone, and his curls lifted a little in the wind as they strode down the long green hill toward Alcmene’s cottage.
Laying a hand on his lifelong friend’s shoulder as they walked, Hercules said quietly, “I really hope you and Ania will be happy together, Iolaus, and that you will both have only good years ahead.”
Smiling up at his taller friend, Iolaus replied, “Thanks, Herc. I guess there’s no way of ever knowing what the future holds, but-I have to tell you, I feel like the luckiest guy alive on this earth today. I’m so happy, I could just about burst. She’s so wonderful, and I love her so much!”
“I know,” Hercules replied with a smile of his own. “She’s lucky, you know, to have won your heart. You’re a pretty special guy.”
“Ah, I’m the lucky one,” Iolaus returned with a diffident shrug. “I have the greatest bride ever… and the best friend as a best man that any man could ever have.”
The people had gathered some time before to be sure that they didn’t miss any of the celebrations, and the priestess from Aphrodite’s local temple was there to oversee the vows. Alcmene smiled and waved as she saw her son and the groom arrive, and then she waved toward her cottage, to signal to Ania and her sister that they could now appear.
Hercules took his place by Iolaus’ side, and then the King of Corinth moved forward to embrace Iolaus with fervent friendship, his own heart gladdened to see Iolaus so very happy. And then the King moved to stand with the Son of Zeus, as the groom’s two best friends, and some in the crowd were awed by the honour shown to a humble farmer who had once been a thief.
The crowd parted for the bride as she walked forward, beautiful in her simple long gown of gold, with daisies woven in her loosened hair, lustrous black curls streaming charmingly in the light breeze. Blushing a little with excitement, she walked with her eyes lowered until she reached Iolaus’ side. Then she looked up, a smile blazing on her face and her eyes glowing with happiness as she took the hand he held out to her.
“Ania,” he said with the ritual words, “I take you as my wife, to love and cherish, to protect and safeguard through all the years of your life, so long as I draw breath.”
“Iolaus,” she replied, “I take you as my husband, to honour and obey you, to love you and care for you, to give you children and warm your home, for all of your life, so long as I draw breath.”
“You are the light of my days, and the comfort of my nights…” he said.
“You are my strength and shelter…” she replied.
“I love you, my wife…I will love you always,” he promised.
“I love you, my husband, and I always will,” she vowed in turn.
He stepped forward and drew her into his arms, gazing for a long moment of blissful wonder into her eyes, and then he bent his head to kiss her as the crowd cheered in loud approval.
The beautiful young couple turned then, to face their families and friends, their young, ardent faces glowing with happiness as the music started. Iolaus swept Ania into his arms and danced with her while the gathered host watched, touched to be in the presence of such pure and innocent love, such tender joy. And then Iolaus was beckoning to them all, to join in the celebration, to dance…and the meadow was soon alive with grace and motion, colour, laughter and song.
Jason and Hercules took turns dancing with Alcmene, and then Jason moved across the meadow, inclining his head as he humbly presented himself to Ania’s father and mother, and requested the matron’s hand in the dance. Astonished to be so honoured by the King, she blushed and dipped, and allowed him to lead her into the throng of celebrants. Her husband gazed after them, swelling a little with pride to have been treated with such courtesy by the King. When Jason returned with her on his arm, he stopped a moment to visit with them.
“Your daughter is very beautiful,” he observed with a smile. “And, I’m delighted to see that she makes Iolaus very happy.”
“Thank you, Sire,” Iolaus’ father-in-law, Acerbus, intoned with unctuous formality. “If I may say, I am overcome with gratitude that you would make time to be here for this marriage. It is a unique and profoundly generous King who takes interest even in the lowliest of his subjects and former servants.”
Startled, Jason blinked. “I’m sorry…‘former servants’? I don’t understand…”
“Why, of course I mean, Iolaus,” the pompous man replied with unfortunate distaste as he spoke his new son-in-law’s name. Jason frowned, his eyes darkening as the man continued, “We’d wondered why he’d been sent to Chiron’s Academy when he’d been convicted of thievery instead of being punished as was warranted, but it seems to have done him good. Being a servant to a noble man such as yourself provided a much needed example to him.” Looking away toward the happy couple, Acerbus missed the flash of anger in Jason’s eyes, as he continued with a sigh, “We’d hoped for better for Ania, as I’m sure you can well understand. But, she’s always been wilful and she’d set her heart on him. One day, likely soon I dare say, she’ll realize her mistake and we’ll forgive her and allow her to return to her home.”
The King of Corinth was rigid with anger, and had to breathe deeply and flex his fists to dispel his fury, to relax enough to speak and not simply slug the fool in defence of Iolaus’ good name. Swallowing, he blew out a breath, and began, his voice dangerously quiet, “I’m sorry, you seem to be suffering under a gross misapprehension of the facts. Iolaus has never been my servant, and he is far from being the lowliest of my subjects. To the contrary, I consider myself the most fortunate of men to be able to call Iolaus my best friend. When we were cadets, Hercules, Iolaus and I were inseparable at the Academy. I’d have Iolaus with me in the palace if he would come. But, for all that I value him, Iolaus is a humble man and laughs to imagine himself as my chief advisor and confidante.”
Iolaus’ parents looked at him in utter incredulity. “But…he’s of no importance!” Ania’s mother, Prissia, exclaimed. “How…”
“Excuse me, madam,” Jason cut in, harshly, “but I hadn’t finished.” The flash of censure in his eyes shocked and silenced her. “Iolaus is the most honourable, most courageous, and most unselfishly loyal mortals I have ever known. He is extraordinary, unique. I have seen him challenge Ares, and fight a god we thought was Ares, when Hercules was threatened. Tell me, what mortal pits his life and risks all, against a god, for friendship? What other mortal inspires such respect and such loyalty of not only the King of Corinth, but the Son of the King of the Gods, that they would stand with him on his wedding day, grateful and proud to know he values them as his best friends?”
They were speechless in the face of his fury at them and his astonishing words.
His jaw tight, Jason shook his head, realizing they were but poor, pathetic fools, and continued, his tone milder, though his eyes still flashed with emotion, “You seem not to have had the opportunity yet to get to know your daughter’s new husband, to appreciate that she is the most fortunate of women to have won his love, and his pledge to safeguard her for all of his life. Personally, I had hoped he’d choose one of my sisters, that I might call him brother as well as friend. But, in his heart, he has found Ania to be of more worth than a princess. You should be honoured to know you’ve raised such a special daughter, someone who recognized the measure of this man’s heart and soul, and cherishes him for the selfless and compassionate hero that he is. I trust that you will remedy the unfortunate circumstance of not coming to know Iolaus well, and move henceforth to assure him of his welcome to your family. I would be offended to think one my two closest and most valued friends was not accorded the respect I believe he deserves.” His final words chilled them with the ice of cold steel. “I trust I make myself clear?”
When they nodded, too frightened now to speak, he smiled, once again warm and urbane, as he looped an arm around each of their shoulders. “This is a joyous occasion…so come, celebrate. Be happy to have such a fine son-in-law, to see your lovely daughter so well-matched!” He turned then and went to greet other guests, moving easily, as if moments before he had not been a seething cauldron of righteous indignation and disgust for such incredible foolishness and blind stupidity.
Not long after, he spotted Prissia hugging Iolaus while Acerbus thumped him enthusiastically on the back, smiling broadly with evident approval for this now most valued son-in-law. Jason’s lips curled in a half-smile, partly cynical to see how they rushed to curry his favour, partly in satisfaction, hoping Iolaus would finally be treated with the warmth and welcome he so richly deserved.
The music and dancing continued, while the feasting began-and the celebrations went on long into the night. There was much laughter and singing, and endless, enthusiastic, toasts to the bride and groom, wishing them long life, happiness and many children to care for them in their old age.
Standing off to one side, watching Iolaus and Ania with a soft smile on his face, Hercules wasn’t all that surprised when he heard his father’s voice at his side.
“They look good together, don’t they?” Zeus observed with curiously parental approval. The King of the Gods well knew that Alcmene considered Iolaus the son of her heart, and Hercules loved him like a brother, so, by extension, the kid was sort of his kid, too. Besides, he’d given Iolaus life, and wasn’t that what a father did? Whatever, Zeus shrugged, amused at the direction of his thoughts; he was well pleased that he’d helped it all turn out so well and felt happy just to see his son so happy. If Hera was still in a snit on Olympus, what did he care?
“Yes, they do,” Hercules agreed and then he turned to look at his father. The demigod hesitated, and then decided his words needed to be said. “We haven’t always see eye to eye, and I suppose there will be times of tension between us again in the years to come. But-I will always be grateful to you for this, for giving him back to me. For permitting this joy in his life. No matter what ever happens, don’t ever think that I will forget this, or ever cease to owe you for what you did. He means more to me than I’ll ever be able to describe in words…”
As Hercules’ voice cracked and broke, Zeus reached to draw his son into a hug. “I know,” the King of the Gods murmured. “I’ve not always been there for you, and you’re right, no doubt we’ll have our differences in the future. But he’s a good man. You’ve chosen well in choosing him as your best friend and comrade in arms. Don’t thank me, Hercules. Don’t thank me for restoring life to the man I believe has always, and will always, keep my favourite son from harm. His death wasn’t meant to be, not then, and not I sincerely hope for many, many years to come.”
Blinking, Hercules drew away from his father’s embrace and they stood together in silence, watching the happy couple dance.
Sometime later, after the final toasts and with the echoes of laughter following them, Iolaus and Ania turned away from the crowd and, waving, they set out for Iolaus’ cottage up on the distant hill, to begin their lives together as husband and wife.
His throat thick with emotion, his eyes burning with unshed tears of happiness for his friend, Hercules whispered, “Be happy, my brother. Be happy and be safe for all the years of your life….”
Turning away, he moved to join his mother to wrap a strong arm around her shoulders. Together they returned to her cottage as the rest of the celebrants headed to their own homes and quiet descended over the meadow. A messenger had come less than an hour before, telling Hercules he was needed in Mycenae, so the demigod knew he’d be on the road when the sun rose again in the sky.
Though a part of him was saddened to know he’d be traveling alone this time, Hercules couldn’t help the abiding joy he felt that Iolaus was still in the world, nor would he ever cease to be grateful to the depths of his soul that his friend had been restored to life. Iolaus’ days of adventure on the road might be over, but the adventure of his life with Ania had just begun.
No one noticed the brief blaze of large, glittering eyes in the star-filled night sky, or the peacock feather that floated gently to the ground, to rest in the place where the happy couple had stood as they’d exchanged their vows….
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